The first time we see Ron Kray, he’s talking animatedly about taking another man’s sausage. Over the two uneasy hours we spend with him he progresses to claiming to be able to see the future, and doesn’t seem to be joking. From the start, we’re wary of what he is capable of, that he could boil over at any moment, but simultaneously we struggle not to laugh. He’d be a spoof character if Tom Hardy’s performances as Ron and his slick, charming and calculating twin Reggie wasn’t so well researched. Brian Helgeland’s LEGEND isn’t celebrating this despicable pair of crime lords as some have surmised from the title, but rather acknowledging the power and influence they held, the East End mythology they are entwined with.
By the early 1960s the Kray Twins (Tom Hardy) ruled a good portion of London’s East End through charm and intimidation. Reggie is a smooth talker who knows everyone’s names and which buttons to push. His volatile brother Ron, fresh out of the asylum and much more of a blunt instrument, scares everyone in his old neighbourhood witless, particularly when Reggie isn’t around to keep him in check. Reggie begins a relationship with starstruck local girl Frances (Emily Browning) just as his enemies, both criminal and law enforcers, begin to close in.
Needless to say Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy are phenomenal. I don’t think any other actor working today plays charismatic scumbags quite like him. Watch his other other showy sort-of-biopic BRONSON for further evidence of this if you haven’t already. In Legend, he may be the same performer, but he might as well be two different actors for the range of different quirks he imbues the twins with. Reggie is strutting, streetwise and beguiling, a reluctant gangster who prefers the euphemism “club owner”. The deceptively attractive Kray is still capable of stark brutality when required, of course. Ron is a hulking gorilla, proud of his criminal ability and willing to flaunt it along with his homosexuality and his cod-philosophical outlook on life. His instability makes him a threat to friend and enemy alike – even Reggie is a little scared of his brother. No character in recent memory is as jarringly equally terrifying and hilarious as Hardy’s Ron Kray.
I’m still undecided whether or not Emily Browning is actually a good actor, but she’s decent here as Reggie’s beloved Frances and the story’s (mostly unnecessary) narrator. Her commentary on events that unfold is over-explanatory and brings you out of the story, but it does serve a purpose eventually. The rest of the cast are filled out with character actors who are either solid (Paul Bettany as an over-the-top rival gangster) or completely wasted (poor Christopher Eccleston playing the cop on the Krays’ tail).
When the film shifts focus away from the Krays it stumbles, neither giving the supporting cast of talented actors a whole lot to do, nor adding much to the story at large. I don’t know how much was cut from scenes exploring the Met’s investigation into the Krays (it wouldn’t be the first time a character played by Eccleston has suffered in the edit) but as it appears in the film, the investigation begins, then is called off, then they get ’em. Three scenes, that’s it. There’s also a storyline involving American gangsters offering the Krays an alliance that goes absolutely nowhere. You don’t really mind because Hardy’s scenes that make up the majority of the runtime are so riveting, but it is an issue.
The very best films about amorality don’t need someone frowning in the corner at all the questionable behaviour on display. Audiences, on the whole, are not idiots. Much like Martin Scorsese did in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Brian Helgeland lets the Krays’ monstrous actions speak for themselves. Look at the scene where the Krays meet in a “neutral” pub for a summit with their gangland rivals. Quickly realising they’ve been set up, Ron storms out insulted when he realises the thugs opposing them don’t have guns. As Reggie quips and kills time, producing brass knuckle-dusters to make a point, Ron re-appears over their foes’ shoulders, horn-rimmed glasses removed, wielding a couple of hammers and ready for action. The scene that follows may be sickening, but it’s visceral, flawlessly choreographed and makes concrete that this pair are a force to be reckoned with.
Helgeland and Hardy have created a high-impact black comic fable. It’s imbalanced in the Krays’ favour in terms of coverage, meaning that other players in the cast miss out, but this just adds to the central pair’s allure. For the East End of London, the twins were a black hole dragging all in to their oblivion. The damage they did and the people they hurt is their legend and their legacy. SSP