(Brian Helgeland, 2015)
There's something sordid and seedy in the best British crime cinema. Something smalltime and banal. Try as it might, British crime cinema cannot grasp the glamour and slickness of American gangster films. Often, the attempt to produce a British equivalent is what creates a different, eccentric sort of magic.
Legend is conspicuously lacking in any such magic. Written and directed by an American (Brian Helgeland, who has great form in the genre, having adapted both LA Confidential and Mystic River) it never feels authentic or indeed, in any way "right". It relentlessly, almost nauseatingly glamourises the Kray twins (both played here by Tom Hardy) and presents the East End of London in the 1960s as a pretty, twee little neighbourhood playground lacking in any true poverty. In much of this, it is indebted to the spectre of Goodfellas. Like that film and its many imitators, Legend gets around the problem of tons of exposition with a voiceover. Here that features Francis (Emily Browning), Reggie Kray's girlfriend then wife, guiding the audience around their world of nightclubs, casinos and East End pubs. That wouldn't be so bad, if Helegeland didn't try to imbue Francis' narration with a sort of hard-bitten depth that never feels comfortable and instead is often cringe-inducingly trite. She actually refers to the "secret history of London" at one point, a sure sign of a writer who has fallen in love with his research (I wish that applied equally to his visuals, where London is all West End bright lights and East end red-brick terraces).
Another Goodfellas-ism is the way the entire film is caked in period music. Only Helegeland doesn't have Scorsese's ear for matching scene to song, and here it often feels as if he's left his iPod on shuffle.
Tom Hardy almost redeems the film in his dual roles. He is mannered but magnetic, making charming, handsome Reggie a down-to-earth heartthrob with a flair for combat and a head for business, who spends much of his time posing through a cigarette. Ron is a different proposition, literally insane, craving violence and awkward in most social situations, he gives the film most of its great scenes. Browning does well in an underwritten part and the supporting cast is filled with quality British character actors mouthing the kind of dialogue familiar from a dozen bad UK crime tv shows.
For all those problems, Legend is entertaining. The story of the twins is a fascinating one, and this film is just as engaging as Peter Medak's grittier The Krays was, even as it offers less depth and fewer answers.