Creating worlds around bad people is a tricky business. When done well, you get shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. Filled with unpleasant people, who do bad things and also their families and the crap that they have to deal with in that world. Importantly though, we are never offered excuses for what they do, but instead just given a glimpse into what motivates them. When it’s done badly, you get self-aggrandising crap that tries to hide the fact these characters are bastards. Legend sits somewhere in between.
Telling the stories of the Kray Twins, Legend has a little bit too much affection towards its protagonists. The title alone seems to point towards a mythologisation of two men, who were to put it simply, bad people. Director Brian Helgeland wants you to like them. So we end up with Ronnie, the charismatic one and the brains behind the operation. He can look after himself and sure, he’s not afraid to bang a few heads together, but at the end of the day he is a good guy. On the other hand, Ronnie is the wild card, plagued by mental health problems he will not think twice about beating your head in with a hammer. But don’t hate him, because underneath all of that he is actually a sweet and gentle soul. You get the impression that the characters on-screen are the ones that the twins themselves would have approved of, rather than a glimpse into the reality.
And don’t get me wrong, Tom Hardy is good in his two roles. They are made distinct by Ronnie’s glasses, but even without them you could tell which one he was portraying the second he walked into a room. His Reggie is a smooth guy and has that glint in his eyes that suggests despite what your brain is telling you, he’s really just a bit of a rascal. Not a shady crime lord. Ronnie meanwhile is so over the top, that he wouldn’t look out-of-place in a pantomime. His accent is surely going to join Bane in the Hardy imitation game and his liability to explode at a moment’s notice leads to some entertaining scenarios. Which is exactly what this films tend to be. Entertaining. I can point to the above issues all I want, but for the two hours I was in the cinema, I was having fun.
Of course, there are other problems. Emily Browning is horribly under served as Francis, Reggie’s wife. She’s a character that is entirely defined by her husband, while her hackneyed cockney voice over is just a bit embarrassing. The same can be said of the London that these characters live in. It’s not just the accents either, the amount of tea in this film is ridiculous and while some of it is played for humour, it goes too far in a world that is meant to be aping the real.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. If you take the Kray Twins name away from Legend, then you would be left with a good gangster film. It’s a bit silly and is hardly likely to stick in the mind once you walk out the cinema doors, but while you are watching you are guaranteed a good time. However, by attaching the Krays to it, you turn it into something else. You turn it into a movie about two real life people who bullied, extorted and murdered at will. To take that subject matter and turn it into a knock about jolly around East London feels wrong and ultimately means no matter how entertaining Legend is, it fails in far too many ways.