TIFF 2015 Review: Legend

Legend-Movie-Still-2015-Tom-Hardy

What’s better than one Tom Hardy? Two Tom Hardys!

If you asked me that question in May – about the same time Mad Max: Fury Road was storming around theatres – I probably would’ve answered the same thing. The guy is a good actor. And even though he pulls off the dual performance in Legend and creates two entirely different characters, the rest of the film felt a bit flat. Two Tom Hardys is good, but two Tom Hardys plus an engaging storyline is even better. This one’s a bit generic.

Narrated by not-Tom Hardy (Emily Browning, playing the long-suffering wife Frances – because the wife is always long-suffering in these types of movies – why does the wife always want the career gangster to go “straight”? Isn’t it obvious that’s not going to happen? Wouldn’t it be preferable to just revel in the immorality and excess? But I digress.) the film tells the tale of twin gangsters – suave Reggie (Tom Hardy) and mentally unstable Ronnie Kray (Hardy again) as they become the most notorious leaders of the London underworld.

This isn’t really a gangster film in the typical sense, as much as you’d be led to believe. The central conflict of the film is about family. There’s the family we’re born with – our blood relatives like our parents or siblings. And then there’s the family we choose – our spouses and friends. If the two families conflict, which one do we choose? That’s the dilemma facing Reggie Kray. He loves his loose-cannon brother Ronnie despite his reckless behaviour and his penchant for violence. He also loves his wife Frances (Emily Browning), who loathes the gangster lifestyle and just wants him to be a regular businessman and nightclub owner. Who will Reggie choose? What will he do?

If only we cared.

My problem with the film is that it’s only Reggie that seems to be the fully-developed character surrounded by one-dimensional caricatures. Reggie stands steadfastly by Ronnie because Ronnie’s “his brother,” but what redeeming qualities does Ronnie show in the movie? He insults Reggie’s wife, almost single-handedly destroys their legacy while Reggie was doing a short stint in prison, and his constant paranoia threatens to derail their criminal empire at every opportunity. The biggest threat to the Krays’ legend isn’t rival gangs (they’re all dispatched fairly easily and with few repercussions) but Ronnie. He’s the ticking time bomb in their operation, and there needs to be a better explanation for Reggie’s protection beyond the half-hearted “he’s my brother.”

Meanwhile, the role of Frances is a thankless part. She falls in love with a charming criminal (and she knows he’s a criminal – he’s practically a celebrity in the East End neighbourhood he prowls in) then asks him to throw it all away to lead a “clean” life and is upset as he constantly fails to do just that. I’m sure the real Frances had dreams and aspirations. The film Frances only does two things – (1) asks Reggie if he’ll go straight and (2) is shocked and disappointed when he doesn’t. That’s about it.

Reggie is the only interesting character. He’s conflicted, he’s successful, he’s got motivation, and he’s torn between two people he loves. Good sympathetic stuff. And then THE SCENE happens and it leaves a sour taste of Reggie that casts a disapproving shadow over the character and undermines the “emotional” scenes that follow. In the television series Breaking Bad, the main character Walter White does some horrible things but perversely I still found myself rooting for him every episode (and judging by the universal acclaim of the finale, which is essentially a redemption story, other people were rooting for Walter as well). After THE SCENE in Legend, I couldn’t care less about Reggie’s plight. He’s an idiot who unconvincingly protects his ne’er-do-well brother and brought all that bullshit on himself.

One other thing before I end this rant – the film doesn’t treat the characters seriously. Ronnie is used mostly for comic relief, but is supposed to be an intimidating and intense character. I kept thinking about Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas, and how you never laughed at him (or with him) and how unpredictable and frightening he was. Ronnie is portrayed as kind of a lumbering dim-wit in this film, which is a missed opportunity but makes a good trailer. Also, the earnest detective (Christopher Eccleston) hot on the Kray brothers’ trail is played like he was lifted from a slapstick comedy – i.e. he’s not really a threat to the twins – but look at those pratfalls!

So what are we left with? A watered-down gangster pic with tonal and thematic issues, but a killer double-handed performance by Tom Hardy. Which all adds up to…meh.

Grade: C-

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