The big breakthrough in Legend, the latest well-crafted studio throwback from writer-director Brian Helgeland (Payback, A Knight’s Tale, 42)? At long last, here’s one movie with two often incomprehensible Tom Hardy characters, sometimes muttering their Cockney swears at each other inside the same scene.
Hardy plays twins, real-life gangsters who ruled London’s East End in the 1960s. The nicer one, Reggie Kray, is Hardy unadorned, with the actor for once unencumbered by wrought-iron face masks or crab-claw breathing apparatuses. It’s bliss to watch him swan, in the early scenes; he maybe should be subtitled, but his smooth toughness and the standard-issue soundtrack cues tell you all you need to know. Stalking his cramped brick Whitechapel streets, trailed by impotent Scotland Yard investigators, he’s all “Green Onions” and “Soulful Strut.”
The highlight comes early, as Reggie courts Frances, a too-young teen played by a tart Emily Browning. Helgeland stages a sensational tribute to Goodfellas, a long take in which the duo parade (through the front door) into a high-end club that Reggie owns, with swells and lowlifes and entertainers kowtowing to the swain and his prize. Reggie gets called away, just for a moment, to handle a problem, and in just a few minutes of film, and no (obvious) cuts of the shot, Hardy swings from charmer to boss-man to monster, and then back through each, returning at last to his date — and his nervousness.
Unlike in Birdman, the long take itself has meaning, containing within its extended, luxurious now most of Reggie’s life: glamour and swagger, weaknesses for romance and for violence, the hard truth that the former will always be corrupted by the latter. The lovers are full of pert promise, exquisite and doomed. She asks him point-blank what it’s like to be a gangster, more forward and turned-on than either expected, and we see them both swallow back the understanding of what they’re getting into. Really, these few minutes are almost movie enough. Legend could have ended there, and I would have grooved on it for days.
But Hardy’s playing twins, remember? Reggie’s yang is thick-jawed Ron, a cruel and unstable bruiser recently sprung from a mental hospital and given to occasionally ruining everything, including the movie. Here is the Hardy who loves to deny us his movie-star face. The filmmakers slap on some horn-rims, spackle away all the expressive lines from his forehead, beef up his nose, and wad cotton or chestnuts or something into his cheeks — really, does the notoriously hard-to-hear Bane from that last Batman picture need the extra speaking challenge, especially in a movie where he’s playing Cockney? The getup is only slightly less of a distraction than Johnny Depp’s in Black Mass, a movie that might have been called Franken Berry Seizes Southie.
In this way the movie does resemble Birdman: Its central, showy stunt compromises the performances and scenecraft. Helgeland only had one Hardy to wrangle during that knockout club date. Later, when Reggie and Ron beat the hell out of each other, Legend loses that vibrant freedom of motion, and the effort of sustaining the illusion sinks the film’s buoyant energies. You never get to breathe the air between the actors.
Ron broods and spit-shouts, and he’s always eager to straight-up murder some yobs. Helgeland occasionally stages Payback-style brutality, but what’s meant to be truly scary here is whatever has come unwound in Ron. Chazz Palminteri, playing an American representative of Meyer Lansky, suggests that Reggie ditch him — like all of us, he sees early on how badly this all will end.
Ron’s un-shy gayness complicates and enlivens a story whose gist is otherwise never un-evident, especially in some early scenes where he states baldly — that mush-mouthed rumble notwithstanding — that he prefers boys. Later, he’s attended to by a pair of tittering-nellie stereotypes, made lads who may as well be the skulking hyena helpers of a Disney villain. Ron’s sex life becomes a key plot point, placing Helgeland in a bind: A movie gangster’s orgies must always be sordid and inhuman, but here the images of spankings and vintage wrestling films are contrasted with Reggie’s (at first) classical Hollywood love story, one scored to Herman’s Hermits’ squeaky-clean “I’m Into Something Good.” (Didn’t The Naked Gun kill that song for all future romances?)
Throughout Legend, songs speak the characters’ hearts, most affectingly in the case of Frances, who bottoms out popping pills to the strains of Helen Shapiro’s “Little Miss Lonely.” The singer Duffy dazzles as Northern Soul singer Timi Yuro, belting “Make the World Go Away” at Esmeralda’s Barn, the Krays’ casino. Hardy’s dialogue becomes more easily discernible as the movie goes on, but between Helgeland’s staging, cinematographer Dick Pope’s framing, and the soundtrack’s pronouncements of 45 rpm feeling, the story is already clear. The specifics of the brothers’ rackets is all we’d miss if the characters never spoke.
If you can’t ever quite believe that this Ron could be a real person, Helgeland and his cast at least craft some fine, painful scenes in the final reels, as both the empire and Reggie’s marriage to Frances founder. A miserable Christmas party is a beauty of period design and a disquisition on the stupid, messy ugliness of violence. Better still is how Helgeland chips away at Reggie and Frances’ defiant sentimentality, at their belief that handsome, hopeful Reggie is somehow less a thug than his brother. Everything’s relative, especially at the movies, and Legend reminds us how easily a pretty star can get us to feel for people we’d deplore in real life — a monster’s a monster, no matter how big its heart or soulful its strut.