Tales of crime and gangsterdom have long been tinged with a seedy glamour, a mix of grit and polish. The story of Ronald and Reggie Kray, twin brothers who were kingpins of the London underworld at the height of the Swinging '60s, adds a bit of psychodrama and is already the stuff of legend, with numerous books and movies based on their exploits.
Legend is directed by Brian Helgeland, who also adapted the screenplay from John Pearson's book The Profession of Violence, and the movie attempts to tell the story of the Krays from the vantage point of Frances Shea, a local girl who married Reggie. This creates overlapping intersections of loyalty and affection between the brothers, their business, and Frances.
Helgeland - who wrote and directed the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 and was a co-Oscar-winner for the screenplay of L.A. Confidential - here never fully connects the personal side of the Krays to their criminal myth.
Legend is, first and foremost, a launching pad for a wild dual-character performance by Tom Hardy as both Reg and Ron. As identical twins, he genuinely seems like two different people, so completely does Hardy transform himself in creating a distinct physicality for each brother. There is a mad, creative energy to his performance that is sorely lacking everywhere else in the movie.
Reg is dashing and the more fully functioning of the two, adding a touch of movie-star charm as he climbs to Frances' window with flowers and sweets. Ron, who was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, is more lumbering and volatile, though given to moments of uneasy lightness, as when he dances clumsily at a Christmas party that ends violently.
Australian actress Emily Browning has the relatively thankless task of playing Frances. The story never finds much for her to do besides be wooed and then wait around. An opening voice-over by Frances - she narrates throughout - announces the era as the 1960s, but no real sense of passing time is given after that.
The intense bond between the brothers makes it difficult for anyone else to wedge a way in, perhaps dooming Reg and Frances' relationship from the start. In mapping their unusual triangle, the mechanics of the Krays' underworld business - a turf war with another British gang and dealings with the American mob, chiefly through Philadelphia's Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri) to launder bearer bonds and establish a foothold in U.K. casinos - comes to feel tacked on and in the way.
The story follows a fairly conventional rise-and-fall arc, so when it winds up in hubris, death, and prison, it seems more dutiful than tragic.
The Krays themselves cultivated the myths that sprouted around them, in a manner not entirely dissimilar from onetime Boston crime-boss James "Whitey" Bulger, subject of the recent movie Black Mass. But as told by Helgeland, this Legend simply isn't memorable because a tremendous effort by Hardy is let down by unfocused storytelling.
Directed by Brian Helgeland. With Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Christopher Eccleston, Colin Morgan, Chazz Palminteri. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 11 mins.
Parent's guide: R (strong violence, language, some sexual and drug material).
Playing at: Ritz Five.