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Non-Review Review: Legend

Legend is a nostalgic gangster film.

Sure, it embraces its sixties aesthetic with relish. After all, setting a film in sixties London all but assures impressive production design. Legend looks and sounds quite lavish, evoking not so much the sixties but the cultural memory of the sixties. The film likes its loud blues and rich browns, but it also draws quite skilfully from the sounds of the era. Appropriately enough for a film adopting the title Legend, the film feels like it owes more to some hazy collective recollection than the concrete reality.

"Whoa! Let's READ the review first..."

“Whoa! Let’s READ the review first…”

However, Legend‘s nostalgia runs a great deal deeper than that. After all, writer and director Brian Helgeland has some experience with crime-based period pieces. The trailers to Legend loudly trumpet Helgeland as the writer of L.A. Confidential, and it’s an obvious comparison in terms of visual style. However, the narrative and structure of Legend feel a lot older. At its heart, Legend is an old-fashioned gangster biography, offering a broad and sweeping (and occasionally episodic) historical travelogue through the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of the Krays.

It is an approach that has fallen somewhat out of style in recent years. The technique certainly has its weaknesses, particularly when applied by hands less skilled than those of Martin Scorsese. It is too much to suggest that Legend measures up to Goodfellas or Casino, but Legend makes good use of its format. It starts with enough energy to sustain its two-hour-and-ten minute runtime through the ebbs and flows of a familiar plot structure, allowing Tom Hardy enough room to craft two separate stunning performances.

Twin town...

Twin town…

Brian Helgeland’s script is generally efficient, and occasionally insightful. At its best moments, it captures the wry absurdity of the larger-than-life figures who rest at the centre of the narrative. Given the harm they caused and the destruction they wrought, it is perhaps too flippant to describe Reggie and Ronnie Kray as “quirky” or “eccentric.” Nevertheless, Helgeland’s script responds to the ridiculous real-life details of the case by painting them as pitch black comedy.

It is not just the central characters who seem to life in some outlandish other world. Ronnie falls in love with the sister of his driver, a young man named Frank Shea. Apparently Frank’s family only had so much creativity when it came to names, so she is named Frances. Paul Bettany has two short scenes as rival gangster Charlie Richardson, who lives a life so ridiculous and oversized that it practically screams for its own spin-off. Legend is absolutely populated with tiny little details that suggest the story has only been minimally exaggerated.

A Kray-ven romance...

A Kray-ven romance…

Early in the film, Reggie Kray explains his business philosophy to Frances. Operating a series of clubs in London’s East End, Reggie Kray allows British celebrities to rub shoulders with gangsters and crooks; operating a series of flamboyant parties out of his apartment, Ronnie Kray allows major political figures to rub more than just shoulders with criminals and mobsters. Reggie suggests that there is a comfort in mingling with dangerous people, as long as they pose absolutely no threat. His clubs operate as something of a tourist attraction for the curious and well-off.

There are moments when Legend plays into this idea; the sense that – as with most gangster films – the vicarious thrill is made possible by distance and comfort. At its best, the film toys with audience’s comfort, playing terrifying violence as black comedy – prompting the audience to wonder if their chuckling is awkward or nervous. As with L.A. Confidential, Helgeland understands the genre well enough to properly pace his film; the awkward laughter is perfectly punctured by shocked gasps as an awkward stand-off takes a blood turn.

See, those protection guys. Always dangling something or other to keep you interested.

See, those protection guys. Always dangling something or other to keep you interested.

Helgeland is not quite as confident a director as a writer; there are points where Legend sags a little bit. The film is perhaps a little bit overwritten in places, with Helgeland’s script doing Emily Browning no favours by assigning her the role of narrator/exposition machine. To help the film cover the necessary ground in a reasonable runtime, Browning is forced to relay essential plot information to the audience, mixed in with a collection of stock gangster movie clichés about the perils of falling in love with a gangster like Reggie Kray.

Legend is an ambitious and old-fashioned film. It is very much an attempt to emulate the sprawling gangland epics of Martin Scorcese; a more cynical reviewer might suggest that Legend took the template of Goodfellas, only to swap out the cocaine for tea and both Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta for Tom Hardy. It is not quite that simple, but Legend does try to cover an impressive amount of narrative ground in the lives of its primary three characters. At a point where it seems the biography film is tending towards the smaller and more intimate, Legend goes big.

"Yes, everybody gambled in the sixties. And posh gambling, too. None of your scratchcards."

“Yes, everybody gambled in the sixties. And posh gambling, too. None of your scratchcards.”

There are problems with this sort of epic biography film. After all, lives don’t tend to conform to the familiar three-act structure and associated plot beats. Gangster stories tend to have the luxury of a familiar structure; the origin story in the opening act, the success with the seeds of decline, and then the third act disintegration. However, the scene-to-scene scripting of these sorts of stories can become episodic; a collection of anecdotes or stories told about familiar figures.

There are points where Legend does drag a little. The opening third of the film moves with a palpable momentum, introducing a large cast in a very clear and effective manner; however, the second half can feel a little weary and routine. Regardless of one’s familiarity with the history of the Kray family, there are points where certain inevitable developments seem more compulsory than tragic. However, Helgeland is a writer who understands structure, and Legend never feels like it gets lost or confused.

Mean (but very stylish) streets...

Mean (but very stylish) streets…

The casting helps. Legend is populated with a cast of superb British and international actors. The supporting cast is particularly impressive. David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri, Sam Spruell and Paul Anderson all add character to the ensemble. Emily Browning struggles a bit in an underwritten role; cast in the dual role as narrator, Frances Shea is perhaps the biggest casualty of the movie’s very traditional structure. Shea feels less like a character in her own right than an audience surrogate and plot point.

However, Legend belongs to Tom Hardy. The actor provides both central performances, bringing both Reggie and Ronnie Kray to life. It is a remarkable accomplishment, with Hardy finding incredible depth and range in embodying these two radically different twin brothers. Hardy is one of the most interesting and dynamic performers of his generation, and his (literal) twin turns in Legend are a work of incredible ambition and technical craft. Hardy ensures that both characters are recognisably related and undeniably distinct.

"Top o' the world, bro!"

“Top o’ the world, bro!”

Ronnie Kray is perhaps the role most in keeping with the niche that Hardy has developed for himself in recent years; Ronnie is very much “Hardy the character actor”, right down to the application of a thick accent and radical body language. Like Bane, Forrest Bondurant, Ivan Locke and Max Rockatansky, it is occasionally unclear exactly what Ronnie is saying; but Hardy’s performance is efficient and clean enough that dialogue is just a tool to help define character. Ronnie’s voice and accent are as much about informing character as they are about delivering exposition.

Ronnie is perhaps the most “showy” role. After all, it is Ronnie who gets most of the big setpieces and memorable lines; it is Ronnie who draws the most uncomfortable laughter from the audience, and who keeps the viewer on their toys for most of the film. Although very much a secondary protagonist, Ronnie is scene-stealing; the character puts Hardy in the delightful position of almost stealing a movie out from under himself. Hardy finds a strange humanity and empathy in Ronnie Kray, but it is a very stylised performance.

I'll raise a glass to that...

I’ll raise a glass to that…

In contrast, Hardy pitches his performance as Reggie Kray at a much more relaxed level. Hardy’s offers a much more traditional and conventional leading performance as Reggie. The film makes it clear that Reggie has no shortage of violence simmering beneath the surface, but Hardy offers a much more straight-laced performance. Reggie is more nuanced and subtle. It is a very interesting choice when it comes to the central performances, with Hardy approaching Ronnie and Reggie from two vastly different angles. There is considerable craft at work.

Legend has its problems, but none of them are critical, and none of them undermine its substantive strengths. Legend is a very traditional and old-fashioned gangster film, albeit one powered by two stunning central performances from the same actor.

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4 Responses

  1. Hi dan, I’m a huge fan of your movie reviews. Initially I thought u a woman based on the headlining picture on your posts and had a huge crush on you, but everything spiralled and crashed after I found out who-or rather-what gender u actually were tee hee ;-). That being said, I’ve lost no respect with…wel, ‘respect’ to your in-depth analysis of films.

    As a aspiring Movie Critic myself -before I came across your blog- I viewed or analyzed movies in a simplistic, surface level sense (the plot, story,characters, use of cgi, pacing, action, directors abilities, etc’). But since I began reading your blogs I’ve realized that its much deeper than that. I began to learn that the ‘film’ itself had its own message and information to convey apart from the ‘movie’s’ aspect of it and that there are or could be a myriad of themes and interpretations that the film may lend itself to. In other words, their like two separate entities in one medium and I love the fact that you ‘interweavingly’ explore these entities with such ease( although, to me, you analyze the film aspects more than the movie). I understand that your educated somewhat so I guess its only natural for your expression to be this way but as a ‘simpleton’ working his way up I just wanna say you’ve opened up my understanding of what film critiquing should really be about. Most of the reviews I’ve read(this one for eg.) Ive never seen the actual movies, due to my location(Jamaica) and certain financial constraints; but they’ve garnered my interests so much more. Anyway, it looks like ive gone and written my own personal review of you so I’ll just leave it at that. Of course I gotta ask: do you have any advice for me? Thanks.

    Ps. Sry for z long txt and the(probably) wrong use of certain punctuation marks, grammer, etc.

    • Hi Michail. Thank your for the kind words. They mean a lot. And I’m glad you like my reviews.

      Truth be told, I don’t think I’m in a position to offer advice. I’m far from an expert; my structure probably needs tightening, my prose borders on abstract.

      If I were to offer advice to you, it would be this: find the way that you want to write, and write that way. You can only really become a critic of something if you care about it, and there’s no right or wrong way to care about art. There are a lot of different people who will tell you that criticism exists for a lot of different purposes: is it meant to recommend art to people? is it part of a discourse with artists about how improve their craft? is it about helping people understand art? There are critics out there who do those things very well, because they believe criticism to be about those things. Personally, I’ve always seen criticism as about explaining how you see something; what a piece of work means to you, and how you respond to it. What’s your context for it? Why do you feel the way you do towards it?

      So, I’d say, learn to write about film in a way that makes you feel comfortable and in a way that expresses yourself. Art is not objective, it means different things to different people; and I don’t think criticism can be objective either. So I don’t think there’s a wrong way to become a critic, as long as you care about the medium you are critiquing. And it sounds like you do.

  2. Hey, uh, darren. Sorry I posted your name as Dan. ( although I could swear that that ws or is your name[I’m pretty certain that there is a Dan here ] or unless there’s someone else who blogs here). In any case the writing style is so similar I never bother to look at who post what(forgive my ignorance) And in that case, Thank You Both!

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