Legend (2015)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/08/15 13:59:32

"Hardy, at least, is legendary."
3 stars (Average)

One of my favorite ways to mess around during awards season and make the point that determining the winners is not nearly so important as shining a light on noteworthy achievements is finding a way to suggest nominating folks with dual rules in a film twice. I am extremely tempted to do that with "Legend", because just one Tom Hardy is probably twice as much roguish charm as most gangster movies can muster, and doubling up on that presents the potential for something spectacular. It's also something that the rest of the film can't compete with, a problem since this isn't one of those performance-capture things where Hardy can play every role.

He can play Reginald and Ronald Kray, though. Gangsters in London's East End in the 1960s, they form sharp contrasts - Reggie is brilliant, tactical, and enjoys hobnobbing with the celebrities who come to his club & casino to get close to danger; Ron is a mentally-unstable thug who really enjoys the parts of being a gangster that involve violence. They're not natural rivals - when the younger sister of Reggie's driver catches his eye, Ron isn't envious; he likes the lads, after all. Still, this Frances Shea (Emily Browning) is more interested in the glamorous surface of the club business than the linked crime, Ron is none too fond of the fellow handling their books (David Thewlis), nor the idea of working for the American mob. Oh, and then there's the Scotland Yard detective (Christopher Eccleston) who's been trying to put them away for years.

Though writer/director Brian Helgeland is American, this being based on a true story explains a lot about Guy Ritchie and the other folks making offbeat British gangster movies - with these guys as a model, it's no wonder those fims are darkly comic and frequently show a flair for the absurd, as there seems to be a great deal of that too the Krays, especially compared to the businesslike Americans who show up. There's no shortage of bizarre and larger-than-life anecdotes to build a movie around, and Helgeland does a fine job of connecting each to the next, from the first scenes of Reggie trading the trail that Scotland Yard has put on him to Ron's later excesses. It's breezy as real-life gangster stories go, admittedly glossing over the day-to-day violence to keep things entertaining.

Tom Hardy has two big parts of that. If I had to designate them as such, I'd say Reggie was the leading role; aside from Frances's narration keeping the focus closer to him even when Rob is the main mover and shaker, Reggie is the one who always feels more multifaceted, like things can change based upon the direction he goes because he seemingly can go multiple directions. He's actually not that flexible, but Hardy always makes him seem to have one foot sick in the streets even when he's smooth, charming, and witty, someone who makes both Frances and the audience want to give his reasonable side more weight even when he's being petty or mean. The bonus for Hardy and the audience is that he also gets to play the scene-stealing nutter. Ron is, not to put too fine a point on it, completely insane, enjoying violence and perversion for their own sakes. Hardy gets to chew a bunch of scenery as this guy, and is usually just as hilarious as it is monstrous - his delivery is not only perfectly caveman-in-a-suit, but his looking just like Reggie means one subconsciously expects some of the latter's good sense and charm before getting talk about building a utopia in Liberia. They're both a blast.

It's almost impossible to compete with that, so the supporting cast wisely avoids one-upsmanship. Emily Browning gets the most time, and while she sometimes seems like a chic accessory to great 1960s fashions, there's an increasingly bitter sarcasm to her narration and just enough weariness to her manner on-screen that her wanting Reggie to step away from actual crime isn't entirely her being foolish and unrealistic. Reggie has a nice cast in his orbit, although Ron's is more fun; Taron Egerton probably has more entertaining moments as the lover/henchman wrong Ronald on than he had in all of Kingsman. And while Christopher Eccleston has a kind of thankless role as the copper with it out for the boys, he plays it just subdued enough to be a welcome presence rather than an obligation.

For all the talent and nifty production value (it's a great-looking-and-sounding movie), Legend can't help but fall into the trap that most gangster biographies fall into: Despite having colorful characters and some fantastically memorable scenes, a gangster's life is generally just those things strung together until something comes more or less or of nowhere to end it. Helgeland does a better job of making this into something resembling a story by building it as Frances wanting to pull Reggie one way while Ron exerts force in the opposite direction, but he can't quite pull it off. As slick and enjoyable as the movie is, it's flatter than one would like, with an ending that may be a bit more than where the filmmakers chose to stop, but maybe not enough more.

Even with that the case, there's little denying that Tom Hardy manages to be terrific twice in this movie. He, at least, is worth nominating twice, even if the film he's in can't quite rise to his level.

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