Take a gander at the Wikipedia page for notorious gangsters the Kray Twins, and you might find some of their exploits hard to believe. Writer-director Brian Helgeland didn't have to gin up much or exaggerate the details when it comes to his telling of the brothers' life in "Legend," which follows the duo during the height of their gangbanging in London's East End in the 1960s. Tom Hardy stars as both brothers Reggie and Ronnie Kray, and his dual performance is virtuosic -- somehow his two characters are so different that they don't even look alike.
"Legend" walks a strange tonal tight-rope of indulging in the swinging '60s London scene, meticulously re-created, with jazzy tunes, sharp suits, beehives, mods and teddy boys. But it's also jarringly, shockingly violent -- the film asserts a no-nonsense gritty brutality, which is appropriate for the real life exploits of the Krays. Adapted from the book "The Profession of Violence" by John Pearson, the film casts a new light on the iconic era, illuminating the darker parts, and highlighting the Krays as stars in their own right.
The film is narrated by Reggie Kray's wife, Frances (Emily Browning), and it follows the period of time when the Krays experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows in their organized crime careers. As nightclub owners and mob bosses, the Krays came up on the mean streets of the East End, surviving the London Blitz, putting their boxing skills to use in their line of work.
While "Legend" is a strong entry into the canon of gangster films, the real reason to see this is to take in Tom Hardy's performance as both Reggie and Ronnie. The story focuses more on the suave, charming Reggie, with mentally ill Ronnie, as the antagonist, the fly in the ointment as the Krays build their power.
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Ronnie's also openly gay, surrounded by his lovers-turned-thugs -- Taron Egerton turns in a fantastic supporting turn as Ronnie's flirtatious gay henchman Mad Teddy Smith. Ronnie's shared predilections with members of the House of Lords generate scandal after scandal. Garnering fame and notoriety, rubbing elbows with the elites, the aristocrats and the powerful, the Krays seem untouchable. Of course, that's never really the case, but what brings them down isn't outside forces but their own internal battles.
Hardy brings his signature feral ferocity to these roles, playing both men with different marble-mouthed, nigh-unintelligible Cockney accents. Ronnie is stiffer, awkward, not quite picking up social cues, but his outbursts are wilder, and his deadpan lines get the most laughs of the film. Reggie is the beauty, the charmer, the brains of the operation while Ronnie is the brute.
"Legend" runs overlong, and while it has a fresh style, and a bizarro funny-violent tone, the gangster movie tropes wear thin. The cycles of threats, beatings and extortion grow wearisome after a while. But the performance by Hardy and the shocking true details of the tale are more than intriguing enough. A sort of British "Goodfellas," the film both captures the culture of organized crime during this era, and doesn't shy away from the bloody viscera involved in this line of work. It's not an instant gangster classic just yet, but a worthy contender nonetheless.