Film Review – Legend
Janus the two-faced Roman God.
The Taoist yin and yang.
The human struggle has long been envisioned in terms of opposing-yet-intertwined forces. In Legend, writer-director Brian Helgeland’s dialectic envisions Tom Hardy as both sides of humanity’s conflicted co-dependence with itself. Tom Hardy – that is – as East End gangsters the Kray Twins. Tom Hardy IS Ronnie Kray, the glasses-wearing schizophrenic gay hedonist psychopath. Tom Hardy IS Reggie Kray, the 20/20-eyed psychopath who falls for the girl next door. Tom Hardy is everything and nothing, his performance(s) the primary reason to watch a film mired in the murk between enjoyably pulpy B-movie and ill-executed awards bait. Your enjoyment will likely depend on how much you want to see Tom Hardy punch himself in the face.
To be fair, it’s unfair to single out Tom Hardy as specifically in danger of being punched in the face. Much of Legend’s tension comes from believing that Tom Hardy could punch anyone in the face. He could punch the police, his own employees, Tom Hardy, maybe his kindly oblivious mum – not everyone gets attacked or whacked in Legend, but you just don’t know who will.
Whatever gripes I have with Legend, Hardy’s performances are an un-ironic wonder, two distinct performances utterly integrated with each other. Individually, each Kray is broadly-sketched. Reggie’s competent. Ronnie’s a nutter. Reggie employs violence strategically, Ronnie with impulsiveness (or rather, with a very short-sighted sense of strategy). When they come into conflict with other people, their actions are – if not entirely predictable – to be expected. When they come into conflict with each other, the fights are technical and dramatic marvels as built-up fraternal tension receives a layered emotional and physical airing. Those scenes are Hardy’s second great ballet of story-told-through-violence this year, after the start-to-finish transcendence of Mad Max: Fury Road.
One wonders whether it could make for one Oscar nomination or two, an aspiration certainly not lost on the film’s producers. A dialectical tension the movie legitimately embodies is an intertwined unease between raw pulpiness and a desire for respectability. Indeed, some combination of chutzpah and naked insecurity is printed right on the film’s UK poster, which (rather ingeniously) sandwiched Guardian critic Benjamin Lee’s 2-star rating between the Hardy Boys’ heads to make it look like a four-star one. As a viewing experience, it’s mostly superficial style and pulpy indulgence. As a melodramatic performance-led British period picture – however – Legend seems like it could be the sort of thing Academy / BAFTA voters go for. It’s also got a well-respected supporting cast (Paul Bettany, Christopher Eccleston, David Thewlis) and an A-list key creative crew (musician Carter Burwell, cinematographer Dick Pope).
Much like organized crime itself, however, dressing Legend up in a photogenic suit doesn’t make it any less messy in practice. Writer-director Brian Helgeland’s most well-known works are genre indulgences, deftly applying pulp and pop sensibilities to period picture ground – respectively, the 1950s Los Angeles of L.A. Confidential (1997) and the medieval times of A Knight’s Tale (2001). So too does Legend with its style and setting. Stylistically, the film bastes itself with violence and the grimy cool of 1960s East End London with such visual detail and intellectual superficiality that it’s difficult to tell if it’s celebrating or parodying its subjects. In the classic The Long Good Friday (1980), a mobster seeks illicit funding to rebuild London’s WWII-bombed East End docklands. The story that film tells is fiction, but explicitly concerned with London’s past, present and future. In contrast, Legend’s obsession with atmospheric detail of a similar time and place highlights just how uninterested it is with social context. Its East End gangland is visually vivid, but makes few attempts to connect with themes or implications beyond its subjects.
The actual experience of the film is a smoky sea of style, a largely arc-less sea of punched faces. The Kray Twins simply are at the movie’s start. They don’t grow. They don’t change. They become more Kray until their violence becomes too public to ignore. This isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself. Am I so cynical that I can’t enjoy an immoral power fantasy about twin crime lords who beat the East End to a bloody pulp? Does it have to be subversive?
Yet – despite its best efforts – Legend does have a story and it’s not very interesting. With Ronnie too chaotic to care about the consequences of his actions, it’s left to Reggie to drive the plot and give it a sense of stakes, which largely come in the form of his romance with youthful East Ender Frances (Emily Browning). Unfortunately, the characters are bland unto themselves and not much more interesting together, the whole affair lacking in the dramatic tension that, say, makes the final scene of marital conflict in The Godfather (1972) so riveting. The Krays are an oroborous of drama, bound to never-ending conflict with each other by blood and business. With Reggie and Frankie, their irreconcilable differences are plain from the start, the whole enterprise too futile to be tragic. Browning tries valiantly, but there’s just not much for her to work with. As a vaguely irresponsible indulgence of the gangster life, Legend is engaging; as a doomed romance, it’s middling.
None of this is helped by the atrocious dialogue – especially the unnecessary voice-overs – right down to a closing monologue of ‘forget it, its London-town which is kinda like the world now that you think about it’. Such prattle doesn’t reveal things about the characters, is only hesitantly thematically supported by the story, and is much too trite to be interesting in its own right. It’s even too cliché to work as pure stock from the gangster genre, which is I suppose something of an accomplishment. Overly literal lines about how the Krays can’t stop, won’t stop being gangsters make for amusing bit of comedy, but are confoundingly literal when played for drama.
Moreover, having watched the movie, I don’t feel like I have a much better understanding of the mechanics of running a successful East End mob in the 1960s. From talking to my English friends, it seems the Krays are known more by persona than the specifics of their deeds. One friend shrugged and asked me what I (an American) knew about Al Capone, which I suppose is a fair comparison. I know of Al Capone, but scarcely any more about him than his face, Geraldo’s vault, tax evasion, and Robert De Niro in The Untouchables (1987). While a historical figure, Capone’s pop culture visage is both well-known and vague enough to be broadly adaptable, as taken to comic extremes in a recent episode of the parody series Documentary Now!
Legend delivers that broad legend of the Krays, generic in at least two senses of the word that form a dialectically conflicted relationship. It is generic as a gangster picture, ‘of a genre’, recognizable; it is generic, bland and superficial. It is iconic; it is interchangeable. As a middlingly-reviewed 2015 gangster film featuring a strong lead, Legend also sits comfortably alongside Black Mass and Johnny Depp’s turn as Boston’s Whitey Bulger. As a film, it has a lot of problems. As a vehicle for a fascinatingly realized combined double role, Legend remains unique. It is as yet the most worthwhile way to watch one of our preeminent actors punch himself in the face.