Directed by Brian Helgeland
Opens November 20
Midway through Legend, a blithely violent movie about the rise and fall of twin London gangsters in the 1960s, Tom Hardy throws Tom Hardy across a bar, bloodying his own face and even battering his own testicles before finally hugging it out with himself on the floor. Hardy plays Reggie and Ronnie Kray as discrete characters, occupying the same frame via some good old-fashioned movie magic. But the spectacle of this brawl doubles as a clever bit of Hardy-on-Hardy self-reflection: He has often appeared on-screen as a man suffocated by the masculine pose he’s affecting, grunting inarticulately and spring-loading his bouncer’s physique to pounce, choosing to wage a war with no one so much as himself. Wouldn’t he especially relish the opportunity, then, to brutalize his doppelgänger?
Legend, written and directed by Brian Helgeland (the L.A. Confidential screenwriter recently had a behind-the-camera hit with 42), does occasionally make the dual performance feel like more than a gimmick, but this tale of strained brotherly loyalty otherwise fails to get off the ground. East End club owner Reggie, who has mastered the all-important public-relations side of organized crime (we see him help a local granny and smoothly brush shoulders with celebrities), teams up with mobsters from across the pond (Chazz Palminteri is their emissary) on an illicit casino project. Hardy inhabits former boxer Reggie ably enough, apparently unadorned by prosthetics, stuffed into a suit that looks like it’s about to burst. His business isn’t low-maintenance, though, at least not with all the explaining he has to do for his partner, the certifiably insane Ronnie. The fatal flaw of the latter Hardy performance is that it seems like a miscellaneous set of features and gestures rather than a coherent portrayal: As Ronnie, Hardy seethes through a visibly fake set of lower teeth, has a lurchingly robotic gait, and speaks with a back-of-throatiness that has shades of the actor’s megaphonic-yet-muffled voice for Dark Knight Rises archvillain Bane. (About half of Ronnie’s dialogue is intelligible. That estimate is charitable.)
In one of the film’s more pointed departures from the mob-film playbook, Ronnie turns out to be gay, and because he’s out of his mind, he talks freely about his sexual conquests with strangers. When he’s not wielding a hammer or throwing bottles, Ronnie is at an orgy with members of the House of Lords and any number of exploitable young men. The action here might be contemporaneous with the swinging London of Blow-Up, but the all-male underworld naturally remains not so open-minded—save for Palminteri’s gangster, who celebrates Ronnie’s cojones. The film attempts to adopt a female perspective on all this boys-will-be-boys behavior, but all too perfunctorily. A voiceover by Emily Browning, who plays Reggie’s increasingly miserable wife Frances, unfolds between sibling feuds and the broader turf wars. The part of Frances is so criminally underwritten (she just wants her man to go straight!) that the best reason for promoting her to narrator seems to be elocutionary: Perhaps Helgeland suspected that Hardy might not have been understandable speaking from off-screen, where there would be fewer additional contextual clues (reaction shots, etc.) to what he’s actually mumbling. Whatever the case, in Frances’s telling, this story never sounds much like a bad-old-days legend—it’s mostly a cautionary tale, one that too often tips over into stilted comedy-of-manners territory.