With a constant sense of impending violence, writer-director Brian Helgeland’s Legend cuts to the core of life as a gangster: accepting this particular line of work requires not just a capacity to maim and steal, but also to deal with the ever-present possibility of a knife in the back.
Tom Hardy is on top form as the Kray twins – the most famous gangsters in 1960s London. At first, we’re led to believe that they collectively represent the light and dark of an ordinary person: Reggie’s tough yet suave and witty, Ron unhinged and monstrous. We soon learn that they’re actually far more similar in temperament than their outward appearances imply.
Helgeland, the screenwriter of, among other things, LA Confidential and director of Payback and A Knight’s Tale, delivers what the title promises first: the legend of Reggie and Ronnie Kray. We’re introduced to London’s East End of the 60s, where the Krays are local celebrities. We head to their club, where celebrities rub shoulders with just the right mix of London’s criminal fraternity to make the place seem sexy and dangerous.
Through Francis (Emily Browning), the wide-eyed teenager who falls under Reggie’s charismatic spell, we’re gradually introduced to the abyss which lies beyond the surface glamour. Being a gangster’s parent, best friend or lover requires a capacity for Doublethink: the ability to love somebody while also knowing they’re a swindler, a robber, a killer. The Krays’ mother has this ability (“You should love your brother, whatever it is he’s done”), but ultimately doesn’t.
There are some great British character actors who turn up for a scene or three, studding the film with little gems of performances. David Thewlis is magnificent as a smart (and unexpectedly tough) moneyman whom Ron inexplicably despises. Chazz Palminteri is nicely oleaginous as a Las Vegas mafioso with terrible died black hair and a suitcase full of hot bearer bonds. Sam Spruell plays the luckless would-be hardman Jack the Hat McVitie, who spends the movie buffeted between its fearsome brothers. Christopher Eccleston is a Scotland Yard detective who skulks around near the movie’s backdrop, only to emerge for a single, electric scene with Hardy as Reggie. (If the film could have made more of any secondary character, it’s Eccleston’s.)
Legend takes the Goodfellas approach to its portrait of 60s gang culture, and cinematographer Dick Pope even borrows some of that film’s moves. The scene where Reggie squires his new lover Francis around his club, the camera swooping around with them among the velour, velvet and bad wallpaper, is the analogue of Scorsese’s bravura restaurant scene.
This isn’t to say that Legend is Goodfellas‘ equal visually – the opening scene of narration and CG-assisted London skyline feels out of place, and some scenes have a processed, stagey look in part because of their obvious use of digitally-produced backgrounds. The film’s better when it’s at street-level, not floating above the landmarks. The film’s third shot, on the other hand, is a keeper: a long, over-the-shoulder take of Reggie walking out of his terrace house, swaggering across the street and straight up to two detectives sitting fruitlessly, bored, in their unmarked car. The camera ducks down and we realise that Reggie’s brought them each a cup of tea. As an introduction to the character’s bravado and particular sense of humour, it’s difficult to fault.
The same can’t always be said for Emily Browning’s narration, a commentary that doesn’t, for the first third, add much that we can’t discern from the physical performances alone. But then the narration takes a turn, giving it both a reason to exist and a stinging twist of the dramatic knife.
On the subject of knives, Helgeland doesn’t blink when it comes to violence, and nor does he embellish it. The only moment that really doesn’t ring true involves the meeting of a champagne bottle and a human skull; like a barroom brawl in an old western, the bottle actually breaks.
Hardy grabs us by the scruff of the neck and drags us past bits like this. He displays a searing kind of magnetism we don’t see much in actors these days. Think back to somebody like Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear, or Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock. You could truly believe, in the moment, that those men were capable of terrible violence. Now look at the current crop of actors: your Jai Courtneys, your Sam Worthingtons. They get the job done, but Tom Hardy’s something else. In every scene, there’s something unspoken at play: a certain wounded power, a coiled mania.
It’s this performance that gives Legend the tension of a guitar string stretched too tight. Sometimes, Hardy is desperately funny. But like those school bullies most of us can remember from our childhoods, Hardy proves to be the master of intimidation in his dual performances: laughter can so quickly move into dark territory. Simply put: never accept a cigarette from Reggie Kray.
This is a particularly absorbing film from Helgeland. It depicts a post-War London now long gone: the cobbled streets, terraces and Cockney bad boys are gone now. But there’s a modern relevance to Legend: its depiction of cruelty, violence and greed is timeless. It’s written into our very DNA. As Francis puts it, “There is no good, no bad. The world simply is.”
Legend is out on the 9th September.
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