Director-Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
Stars: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Ecclestone
Rating: * *
Tom Hardy is a better actor than either Gary or Martin Kemp, but their 1990 version of The Krays, for all its overwrought symbolism (crocodiles, Siamese twins in formaldehyde), is by far the better film. Legend, as the very title suggests, retells the story of our very own low-rent, mid-century mobsters by hiding behind a heightened fantasy of good-twin-bad-twin (or at the very least, not-so-good-twin-psychotic-nutter-twin) and Hardy’s impressive, if overly emphatic, duality. Imagine Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers stripped of all their complexities and innate tensions and you’ve got an idea of writer-director Brian Helgeland’s approach here. That elderly barmaid witness to Ron’s shooting of Geroge Cornell, too scared to testify to what really happened? That’s effectively Helgeland.
Forcing the Krays story into a love triangle with Reggie’s fragile wife Frances may be dramatically neat but it’s historically (and morally) dubious. To be fair, it’s no less scandalous than Aaron Sorkin script for The Social Network claiming Mark Zuckerberg’s entire motivation for founding Facebook was unrequited pining for an ex-girlfriend, when in fact the real guy was in a happy relationship with the woman he later married. We’re constantly told by filmmakers that we shouldn’t go to fictional reconstructions of real people and events for facts, but for “emotional truths”. And, sure, no one wants a court transcript. The trouble is though, if you grant some people dramatic licence, they’re liable to attempt fancy handbrake turns instead of responsible steering and write off the whole vehicle.
As the co-writer of a film as morally ambivalent as LA Confidential one would hope Helgeland knew how tenuous his set-up is. But he seems as easily seduced by the East End thugs veneer of West End glamour as much as “Swinging London”TM was. Wallpapering the soundtrack with ‘60s chart hits, it’s as if he’s trying to distract us from the real deal here, much as the Krays did with their respectable citizens act back in the day. And so, this Reggie is basically a suave good fella, undone by family and filial devotion, who, bar one off-screen rape scene, is forced to fight back against slights and rivals. And this Ron is a one-note, mouth-breathing nutcase, Hardy’s clotted vocal suggesting a system that’s backed up on its own uncomprehending brutality.
Frances is a complete cipher and Emily Browning gets little chance to delve into her fragility, despite being granted an omniscient voiceover completely at odds with her tragic, short-lived life. But that’s Legend all over: coasting on its cheap surface thrills: sharp suits, toe-tapping tunes, pithy, completely unbelievable punchlines and as in thrall to US gangster movies as were the brothers themselves. If the Krays’ camouflaged their sordid reality in hyperbole and rumour from the beginning, this lackluster version doesn’t even print that legend, opting instead for the comic strip, another cartoonish anti-hero for Hardy to put alongside Max Rockatansky and Bane.