Thursday, November 26, 2015
Written for the Screen and Directed by Brian Helgeland
Legend contains such a brilliant fusion of the two personalities that Tom Hardy so often inhabits in his movies. On the one hand, there's the brooding, but suave man behind Locke and Inception, but then there's also the Tom Hardy we're more familiar with - the one that's quickly becoming a movie star - the brutish blunt object of Bronson, Warrior and The Dark Knight Rises. Earlier this year, Hardy was great in Mad Max: Fury Road, where little was required of him other than scrambling around frantically, driving fearlessly and basically being an unstoppable force careening into an immovable object. It's one of the best films of the year, and no short amount of credit should go to Hardy for subduing his own gigantism for the sake of the narrative. He doesn't have to make any of these sacrifices in Legend, where Hardy is allowed to embrace both halves of his cinematic duality. Here he's playing the Kray brothers, two of the most infamous gangsters in English history. One brother, Reggie, is a shrewd businessman unafraid to get his hands bloodied in the underground world of British organized crime. The other, Ronnie, is a bloodthirsty simpleton, whose certified insanity may not be readily apparent until his penchant for gruesome violence makes an appearance. Hardy plays both these roles with an unwavering flair, painting both brothers with equal parts menace and humor, showing a bombastic range unlike anything we've seen from this supremely talented actor.
The Kray twins are considered to be the foremost British perpetrators of organized crime in the 1950's and 60's, and were the leaders of a gang responsible for robberies, assaults and at least two different murders (though probably several more as well). Legend is told from the perspective of Frances Shea (Emily Browning), a young East End girl who catches the fancy of Reggie Kray and becomes his sole focus of attention. Reggie courts Frances without much effort, and woos the young woman into his life. Frances hears loud objections from her mother (Tara Fitzgerald) about the relationship, but that only makes her time with Reggie that much more exciting. As their love begins to grow, there's only one issue: Reggie's brother Ronnie. After threatening Ronnie's psychiatrist into giving him a clean bill of health, Reggie leads the certified insane Ronnie back onto the streets, where only a bottle of daily sedatives is keeping him from total lunacy. Reggie's main trade is club owning, which he takes to with great aplomb. His clubs are amongst the most frequented by the local elite, and his sharp mind for luxury keeps his places amongst the best. As she becomes closer and closer to Reggie, Frances begins to wonder why Reggie cannot simply live life without criminality. A business mind as solid as his would be good enough to run the clubs without intimidation and violence; but as Frances becomes more and more intimate within the Kray family, she learns that it's Ronnie, and his compulsive need for a gangster lifestyle that keeps Reggie with one foot off the merry-go-round.
Ronnie Kray isn't too shy about his shortcomings. He knows that he pales in comparison to Reggie in almost all forms of presentability. He has a blunt directness that can be surprisingly sweet at times, but is often just unsettling. There's a slight nobility to his open homosexuality, his blatant perversity and penchant for not hiding facts about his life, but it often shows itself in untoward ways. More than anything, Ronnie is led by the fear of losing his brother, Reggie. Whether it be losing him to a Las Vegas Italian (Chazz Palminteri) asking for protection for a London casino, or to a frisky business manager named Leslie Payne (David Thewlis) who keeps assuring that more money can be made by going straight, or most scary, to Reggie's new wife, Frances. Anything that threatens to become closer to Reggie truly scares Ronnie, and he ends up showing it in truly maniacal ways. As their wealth increases, the twins both begin to act more and more unstable. On their trail from the beginning is Leonard "Nipper" Read (Charles Eccleston), a detective who spends decades in a Quixotic attempt to catch the brothers in a mistake. The Krays begin to become careless, they murder people in public, they makes scenes in their clubs, and Reggie's unending commitment to his brother, despite his own better judgment, causes his marriage to Frances to deteriorate. As their empire begins to crumble, the Krays begin to become more violent then ever, and that is when their placement in gangster history was cemented.
The framing device of having Frances narrate the film's story held little water for me. It's one of the many things that Legend takes from Goodfellas, but adds little to the film other than a nifty twist toward the end that felt more like a cheat. Legend's director, Brian Helgeland, is known mostly for his work as a screenwriter. He won an Oscar for co-writing L.A. Confidential and got another nomination for Mystic River. Legend is his fifth feature as a director, and easily his best, his most confident. He's got a gift for manipulating violent tales with charm, which is what made his Mel Gibson revenge flick Payback so wonderfully bad, and what made his medieval fantasy A Knight's Tale so delightful. His attempt at the Hollywood biopic, with the 2013 Jackie Robinson film 42, was a bit of a lackluster effort but it was a huge hit, and it's probably responsible for Helgeland getting to make Legend. As I mentioned, he's borrowing without much prejudice from Scorsese's Goodfellas - whether it be the snappy pop soundtrack, the voice-over narration or wandering camera lens - but also knows how to borrow well. The film doesn't feel patchwork, it has an actual understanding of Scorsese's style and applies it to his narrative. Working with the great cinematographer Dick Pope, Helgeland envisions a brightly colored East End, swelling with the music of the British Invasion, and wardrobes bursting with a spectrum of colors. This is an astonishingly well-made film, all things considered. Helgeland's handle on the narrative feels tight (as you might guess, he wrote the screenplay), and needless narration aside, it's obvious that this is Helgeland's story to tell.
But if its Helgeland's story, than Legend is Hardy's movie. Browning, Thewlis and the rest of the supporting cast are serviceable, but Hardy gives what is probably his most captivating performance since 2008's Bronson. In both films, he was playing notorious criminals in Twentieth Century England, and in both films he has a surprisingly empathetic way of displaying mental instability. But like most of Hardy's most memorable performances, Bronson is primarily a performance from his body, a burgeoning physicality unlike any other movie star today. By getting to play both of the Krays, Hardy is able to find the physicality and the intelligence behind the role. This is a performance so breathtakingly tour-de-force, so tightly wound and yet so entertaining and funny. I don't know if the notoriously ornery actor has ever been more watchable on the screen. This is far from the best movie that Hardy has been in - hell, it's not even the best movie he's been in this year - but I don't think I've ever seen him have more fun or take more control. Under the watch of Helgeland, Hardy takes off and delves into these dark characters only to find that what is there is actually a very human story. The gangster film has been wanting for a good while, and Legend is the best effort the genre has gotten probably since Donnie Brasco in 1997. Helgeland has shown that he can tackle these worlds as a writer, but this is the first time he's shown that he can accomplish it as a director. As for Hardy, you walk out of this film wondering if there's anything that he can't do, any role that's too challenging or too intense. Likely not, since intensity is what he feeds off of, and it doesn't get much more intense than the Kray brothers.