REVIEW: ‘Legend’ doubles up on Tom Hardy, but divides its tone
Getting two of something for the price of one usually sounds like a good deal. In the movie world, getting two performances from the same actor in one movie doesn’t come along very often; so when the actor is Tom Hardy, it feels like an excellent bargain, given how good Hardy can be when he finds the right material.
Of course, sometimes a two-for-one sale just leaves you with too much stuff, most of which you don’t really want. And such is the problem with Tom Hardy’s new film Legend, where Hardy does double duty as the villainous Kray twins, real-life London gangsters in the 1960s.
Brian Helgeland’s film tries to offer a picture of the underworld that the Krays eventually came to control – a mix of bleak human drama and darkly funny cynicism. Sadly for Legend, films can clone their actors all they like, but they don’t recover from being two movies at once. Either of Legend’s constituent halves could have made a fine film, though when combined, the movie ricochets between black comedy and gangster melodrama. It makes for a distracting mix, and Helgeland must rely on ideas that have been better executed in many earlier works.
The movie’s opening is the first clue that we’re in for a divisive ride. Rather than trust the audience to grasp the basic idea of two twin brothers who are seen as up-and-comers in the organized crime circuit, we’re guided through the setup by the hand-holding narration of Frances (Emily Browning). Frances, a young woman from the East End of London, crosses paths with the charming Reggie Kray, only to fall for his confident swagger and the excitement of dating a gangster. Apparently, this makes her the resident authority on the life of a career criminal, and her voice pops up again and again to over-explain a scene or relationship.
Simply put, Frances puts a constant damper on a rowdy story that needs little explanation. In one scene, just when we’re having fun during a showdown in a pub, which features Reggie and Ronnie Kray fending off 10 thugs with a pair of hammers, brass knuckles and a rock song on the soundtrack, Frances cuts in to remind us of how tortured her life is by being associated with these two. Storytelling like this leaves you with some narrative whiplash: are supposed to be enjoying ourselves, or shaking our heads in disbelief at how rotten these characters are?
What’s worse is that we’ve seen all these components before, and usually better organized into films with consistent tones. In 1972, The Godfather gave us the uneasy rise to power and thirst for legitimacy that Reggie Kray (the more sane of the twins) half-heartedly craves. Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola’s film provided a quiet wife character (played by Diane Keaton) who tries to reform her husband. And try as it might, Legend’s attempts at revealing truths about gangster life fall well short of the finely-tuned precedents set by Coppola, Martin Scorsese or Brian de Palma.
And then on the other side of the spectrum, Hardy himself has appeared in films that glorify life as a criminal: Layer Cake, RocknRolla, Bronson and Lawless. As intriguing as Hardy’s double role in Legend is, it feels increasingly like a gimmick when you consider what’s come before.
To Hardy’s credit, he does a notable job of distinguishing between the two Krays: Reggie is controlled and professional, while Ronnie is a paranoid schizophrenic and a man of appetites. There’s fun to be had watching one of the Hardys (admittedly, a phrase you don’t get to write very often) walk into a scene and dust things up, but it’s an effect that could have been achieved in a trim 1 hour and 40 minute comedy, not the 2 hour and 10 minute quasi-epic that Legend aspires to be.
With Legend beginning its rollout today, in prime Oscar-bait season, you’ll need to ask yourself whether an extra-strong dose of Tom Hardy is enough to get you to temporarily pass on some of the real contenders on offer this weekend, like Brooklyn, Room or Spotlight. If we treat the multiplex like a retail store, there are premium products and bargain bundles, and Legend falls into the latter.
Legend gets two stars out of four.
What did you think of the new Tom Hardy gangster project? Does its dark British humour make it worthwhile, or were you dragged down by its dramatic sections? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!