Autumn 2015 has been a ripe season for no-holds-barred psychopathic gangsters at the movies. Black Mass set the mark high, but now Brian Helgeland’s Legend gleefully leaps over it in a shower of spittle and knuckle dusters. If Johnny Depp was full-on insane as Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, then Tom Hardy must be at least twice as crazy portraying both of the mercurial Kray brothers, Reggie and Ronnie, the scourge of Swinging London in the 1960s.
If you like your blood by the quart and your pubs dark and woody, one or another of the Kray twins will scratch that itch. But you’ll probably end up choosing one of Hardy’s show-stopping impersonations over the other. Reggie and Ronnie together are just too much, whether shredding a bar full of rivals or stopping in for tea at their mum’s. Hardy’s dual role, compulsively showy and impossible to soft-pedal, destroys the middle ground.
Reggie, the more charming of the pair, seems satisfied running a string of nightclubs and casinos and romancing his East End neighborhood squeeze, tender-hearted Frances Shea (Australian actress Emily Browning), who forever tries and fails to cure her man of his wicked ways. Reggie can take his lumps and dish them out — his prison-guard beating scene may send squeamish viewers scrambling for the exits — but he’s the comparative diplomat of the firm, the right guy to negotiate with such visiting American hoods as Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri).
Ronnie, meanwhile, is an animal, a stammering but cunning former mental patient with an unpredictable temper and the thickest cockney accent in captivity, a gob full of mashed potatoes. He’s also flamboyantly gay, with one or two young boyfriends constantly at his elbow and a fondness for hosting orgies at his home for influential houseguests. Unaccountably, Ronnie’s dream is to finance a charity development project in Nigeria. For that and other odd character quirks, Ronnie is hands down the more entertaining of the two. But in the tradition of the best mobster flicks, we’d rather watch him on screen than meet him in a dark alley (the real Ronnie died in 1995; Reggie in 2000).
London-born character actor Hardy, of course, has been playing variations on Reggie and Ronnie Kray for much of his film career, notably in Bronson (2008) and the 2014 TV series Peaky Blinders. But he has also ventured out into deep character in such dramas as The Drop (as a luckless gofer, opposite James Gandolfini); the tense one-man show Locke; sci-fi epics The Dark Knight Rises and Inception; as a fine Bill Sikes in BBC’s Oliver Twist; and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in the role of MI5 asset Ricki Tarr of Penang. Like many English actors, he portrays Americans with ease. In the leading-muscle-man sweepstakes versus, for instance, Channing Tatum, Hardy clearly has the upper hand — perfectly happy to not only play against type, but to convincingly portray human weakness. For all their blunt brutality, the Kray twins are emotional weaklings. Hardy capitalizes on their failings.
For all its spectacular violence, the tone of Legend — screenplay by director Helgeland (42, Mystic River, L.A. Confidential), adapted from John Pearson’s book, The Profession of Violence — revels in a peculiar East London hominess, sentimentality with broken noses. David Thewlis, always well cast as a cad, plays the fixer Leslie Payne. The flavor extends to such Kray henchmen as goofball Jack the Hat (Sam Spruell), Big Pat the bouncer (Adam Fogerty), Albie Donoghue (Paul Anderson), and Ronnie’s paramour Teddy Smith (Taron Egerton).
And let’s not forget Nipper Read the Scotland Yard copper (Christopher Eccleston), a face that would stop a clock. If we squint the right way at their antics, Legend plays like a nasty comedy. Some audiences might have trouble laughing along with a movie that depicts such vicious mayhem, but if that’s no deterrent, Legend weighs in officially as too much of a good thing. Unapologetic rough stuff, with testosterone seeping out of every frame.