Mark Reviews Movies

Legend (2015)

LEGEND (2015)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Brian Helgeland

Cast: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Colin Morgan, Paul Anderson, Taron Egerton, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri, Paul Bettany 

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual and drug material)

Running Time: 2:11

Release Date: 11/20/15 (limited); 12/11/15 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 11, 2015

The infamous Kray brothers, identical twin gangsters of London's East End, get the revisionist treatment in Legend. One, the movie argues, was certifiably insane, and the other could have been a decent man if only he hadn't been so in love with being a gangster. Beyond the fact that there's little depth to be had within either argument, the depictions also mean that the movie starts to move past finding a rationale for their behavior into the territory of excusing and coming close to forgiving the pair for their actions.

Beyond even that, writer/director Brian Helgeland doesn't do a convincing job of selling the arguments. It's a movie that alleges to be about the allure of the life of a gangster that doesn't make a life of crime appealing. It's also a movie that purports to be about the damage wrought by these two criminals that downplays their crimes. It's a movie that clearly states its goals but that doesn't accomplish them.

The Krays, Reggie and Ronnie, are both played by Tom Hardy in what turns out to be half of a decent performance. As Reggie, Hardy is generically charming, with slicked-back hair and a slight Cockney accent. He's the kind of guy who could attract a pretty young woman like Frances (Emily Browning), the sister of a member of the Kray gang.

Frances serves as our narrator, informing us at the start that Reggie is the man she loved and the man she hates. She comes into and retreats out of the story with little care. There's a series of scenes in which her role becomes vital to understanding the impact of Reggie's life on an innocent such as herself, but she mainly exists to fill in the narratives many blanks in voice-over. It is best to only hint that there is a bit of twist in terms of that narration, although it is perfectly fair to point out that said twist is a cynical act of cheap manipulation that continues the movie's odd choice to distance us from the Krays' worst behavior.

Ronnie is as blatant a psychopath as Reggie is a charmer. Hardy plays this role with an intentionally off-putting physicality and mumbled line readings. It's a performance filled with facial tics under browline glasses and a constant appearance of physical discomfort that is distracting. The point, of course, is that the two brothers are as different in terms of personality as they could be. It also means that we're always constantly aware, either consciously or subconsciously, of the technical trickery being employed to put Hardy in the same frame with himself (One wonders if the movie could have been bettered served, both on a technical and a thematic level, with a more complementary dual performance from the actor).

Ronnie starts the story in mental institution after being convicted of running a local racket and being found criminally insane, but Reggie and the twins' business manager Leslie Payne (David Thewlis) convince a psychiatrist to give Ronnie clean bill of mental health. There's a clever bit of staging in the way Helgeland presents such "negotiations."  Leslie and Reggie each reaches into his suit pocket, and while Leslie removes a pen, Reggie's hand stays, waiting for someone to turn down the offer. No one ever does, or if they do, the denial doesn't last for long.

Reggie and Ronnie become owners of a local nightclub and, later, a casino, where the richest of 1960s London society adore the opportunity to rub elbows with real gangsters. The mafia wants in on the action, too, so the brothers strike a deal with an American gangster (Chazz Palminteri). Meanwhile, their criminal competition and Leonard "Nipper" Read (Christopher Eccleston) of Scotland Yard are trying to stop the twins from taking over the whole of the city.

That encompasses everything the movie has to say about the Krays, and it's really just a series of highlights. They are successful at what they do and occasionally resort to violence in order to keep their competition at bay. There is no way for Reggie to have the personal life he wants because of the professional life to which he is allegedly attracted, even though the movie makes it seem that he is more resigned to it (An impressive one-take of Reggie and Frances on their first date goes from Reggie's romantic intentions to his need to physically "correct" a thieving henchman and back again without Reggie missing a beat). Ronnie is a hopeless cause, driven by psychotic urges to brutalize anyone who looks at him the wrong way.

A pair of impulsive murders is ultimately the brothers' downfall, and Helgeland oddly plays the events as a tragedy of circumstances—the inability of anyone to do anything about Ronnie's condition and the failing of Reggie's relationship with Frances. This would be fine, if a bit uncomfortable, but Legend doesn't even earn our discomfort at the way it attempts to turn these men into tragic figures.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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