If you don’t like your movies to celebrate criminals, avoid Legend, which treats London’s notorious Kray twins as if they were tragic heroes. Which should be pretty obvious by the title.
In yet another stroke of awesome acting, Tom Hardy plays both twins, Reggie and Ronnie, and he does it so well that you seriously do forget it’s the same dude (in Ron’s case, behind the glasses). Reggie is reasonable and smart and caring (was he really this reasonable and smart and caring?) while Ron is a sociopath. He’s also homosexual, paranoid, violent and by far the more interesting – indeed, fun – of the two.
The Krays’ reign (of terror) was at its height in the 1960s, and the film takes place mainly in the second half of that decade, not bothering with their early years (to its benefit, for my taste at least). The main narrative is constructed through the prism of Reggie’s relationship with young East End lass Frances (played very well by Emily Browning) with Ronnie’s release from a mental hospital and subsequent loose-cannon behaviour running alongside as a sort of “B” story. But you don’t come to a movie about the Krays for a love story or a treatise on mental illness, you come for the criminal activity, and that is ticked off episodically. You get all the highlights – the controversy with Lord Boothby (a perfect John Sessions), the alliance with the US Mob (represented London-side by Angelo Bruno and played snakily by Chazz Palminteri), the murders (although the relationship with Frank “The Mad Axeman” Mitchell is not represented, which is strange, as it’s so juicy) – and, thankfully, a bit of context in the form of the boys’ beloved mum and dad (Jane Wood and Jon McKenna). Ronnie’s homosexuality runs as a dominant theme throughout, and the creation of his own queer mini-gang within The Firm is an important and intriguing sideshow. Taron Egerton, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Tara Fitzgerald and Paul Bettany are all along for the jaunty ride.
Legend is written and directed by Brian Helgeland who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for LA Confidential, and it shares with that film a glossy sheen and sense of heightened style. Everything is very colourful and very bright and the tone is fun, fun fun. These Krays are funnier than they are scary, and Hardy’s dual performance, especially as Ronnie, is even more theatrical than his usual heightened style. If this version of the Krays’ story had been based on a graphic novel I would not have been surprised – it’s got that sort of tone. Instead, it’s based on John Pearson’s 1972 book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins, which, in line with the resulting film, thoroughly glamorises the Krays’ lifestyles, and which was, indeed, the result of their wanting someone to write their “official autobiography”!
I have no qualms about gangster movies that glorify the gangsters – I’d have to sacrifice a significant chunk of Scorsese’s oevre if I did – and I didn’t have a problem with the breezy, happy-go-lucky tone of Legend. Indeed, I had a lot of fun throughout. But that does come at the price of any sort of real insight or emotional resonance, and the events towards the end of the film, which should have been kind of shattering, instead simply signalled to me that the story was winding up. Scorsese pitches us Glamour Gangsters too, but he always manages to include some heavy dark truths that ultimately keep us aware that we, the taxpayers, are on the right side of morality. Legend suggests we may actually be the mugs.