Brian Helgeland’s latest screenwriting foray into the world of organized crime, which he also directed, is the kind of movie that sounds like an absolute must-see. A 1960s mob movie about the infamous Krays, twin brothers who ruled the underworld of London’s east end in the 1960s. Cast Tom Hardy as both Reggie (the dapper, calculating one) and Ronnie (the certifiably insane one) Kray and how can you go wrong?
Well, for starters, you can have the narrator, Frances (played by Emily Browning), start the film by saying “1960s, London,” a graceless way to introduce a film’s time and setting, both of which should have been easily discernable on their own. The opening shot of the brothers riding the back of a car, the one being used for all the promotional material, has the camera hanging long and heavy on both Hardys while Frances carefully explains away every possible detail that might have accidentally been inferred through the subtleties of storytelling.
What follows is a bloated two-and-a-half hour collection of assorted scenes of one of the two brothers (usually the dapper one) gallivanting across London and inferring his power gained through life as a gangster. We don’t really see any of this take place, but it’s certainly talked about. We see an intimidated psychiatrist, a bar brawl with a rival gang, and a lot of references to them being intimidating (mostly via narration) without seeing any of it take place. Did I mention they “ruled London”? Because the movie really, really wants to make that clear.
While there are some charming moments to Legend, Hardy really shines when playing the socially maladjusted Ronnie. Described as a psychopath but never really exhibiting any traits as such, his horn-rimmed glasses, framing his furrowed brow and octave-lower vocal delivery is woefully marginalized. His desire to simply “be a gangster,” his open homosexuality, and brutish but clumsily caring nature are all referenced repeatedly but never become the focal point long enough to develop into an organic part of the story. Instead, much of his screen time ended up prompting some of the most inappropriate laughter I’ve heard in a theater since I couldn’t stop laughing through that opening scene in Twister.
While the “collection of scenes” are mostly good or occasionally great, they fail to gel together into an overall narrative, resulting in an uneven movie with a wildly uneven tone. It’s a disappointing result from the man who won an Oscar for writing L.A. Confidential, and was nominated for writing Mystic River. Despite monumental achievements, in the director’s chair he seems too aimless in his storytelling.
Helgaland explained to the audience afterwards that the urban legends of the Krays portrayed them as either sinners or saints, and simply tried to collect all the definitive facts that he could (birthdates, court dates, incarceration records), and what results is possibly one of the most historically accurate gangster films where almost nothing significant, historically or otherwise, takes place.