Part of the thrill of seeing Tom Hardy in Bronson and Locke lies in seeing him bring bronze statues to life—with either brute-force rage or a wealth of vulnerable human detail, sometimes both. But for his dual performance in Legend, the actor finally finds a role—or rather, roles—impervious to his considerable imagination. In spite of all the energy he brings to infamous twin gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the former heterosexual and sane and the latter gay and psychotic, Hardy fails to dig deep enough into these characters so as to illuminate their sometimes inexplicable personas. Instead, he overcompensates by dialing up his flair for mannerisms, such as the mumbly style of line delivery with which Ronnie speaks, distractingly evoking his performance as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.
Given how Legend’s script is so bereft of insight into its characters’ psyches, perhaps there’s only so much even an actor of Hardy’s stature can do. Legend is written and directed by Brian Helgeland, so it’s no surprise that, like his 1999 macho actioner Payback, the film comes off as little more than a series of “cool” genre poses offering little human interest. Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino homages abound (including yet another rip-off of the lengthy Copacabana tracking shot from Goodfellas), but worse than the reheated stylistic borrowings are the shallow characterizations that scream Helgeland’s contempt for these people. Scorsese may not have exactly loved his characters in Goodfellas, but he at least saw them with an unsparingly clear eye, allowing us to understand them even at their most appalling.
Such empathy is foreign to Helgeland’s sneering sensibility. Take his treatment of Legend’s equivalent of Goodfellas’s Karen Hill, Reggie’s long-suffering wife, Frances Shea (Emily Browning). Helgeland’s grasp of the reasons behind her attraction to Reggie doesn’t extend far beyond her saying to her disapproving mother at one point that she thinks he’s “sweet.” Mostly she just comes off as a self-deluding ditz who gets what’s coming to her. This lack of imagination is all the more ironic because it’s she who narrates the film from a position—on the surface, at least—of bitter hard-fought wisdom.
Surface, however, is everything in Legend, with wisdom in short supply. The closest Helgeland comes to suggesting anything of substance about what makes the Krays tick lies in a scene in which Ronnie openly admits his homosexuality to American gangster Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri)—an openness that suggests a terrifying sense of freedom that, for the Krays, has translated into a complete absence of a moral compass. Otherwise, the film’s analysis never goes beyond a barely explained sense of stubborn family loyalty on Reggie’s part driving him to keep his crazy brother out of an insane asylum even as he runs their criminal empire to the ground. Mostly, Helgeland sees the story of the Kray brothers as grist for yet another black-comic riff on Goodfellas—as if the world needed another one of those.