Film Review: ‘Legend’: The Cray-Cray Kray Brothers
(Urban Dictionary: Top Definition: cray cray: meaning really crazy)
The Kray brothers were British gangsters who menaced London’s East End and Soho nightlife in the Swinging ’60s. One brother was bad; he was very, very bad. The other brother—he was worse. Tom Hardy plays both.
Why do we tell endless gangster tales in America? Aside from liking violence too much, we like to see just exactly where the monstrousness sets in and imagine we’d personally put up a better struggle against it than these guys.
But the only real reason to see “Legend” is to see Tom Hardy be a dashing leading man and a malevolent character actor at the same time. If you’re a Hardy fan (and I am), two-thirds of it is quite fun. The last third is rather depressing.
What the Cray-Cray Krays Did
They ran nightclubs and banked on the fact that aristocrats and gangsters have a lot in common (they bore easily, for one) and therefore like to rub shoulders with one another at places where the champagne flows. The well-bred like the whiff of danger and the lowlifes like to feel uplifted by high society.
But the Kray operations didn’t end there; they plied enough of the gamut of gangland trade that America’s notorious Meyer Lansky eventually wanted to ride the Kray coattails to a piece of the pie across the pond, sending one Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri) to make the overtures.
Love and Marriage for Reggie
The film is narrated by Frances, Reggies wife-to-be (Australian actress Emily Browning). She’s the little sister of one of Reggie’s men.
Handsome Reggie’s the glad-handing extrovert schmoozer and lady-killer. This is Hardy at his most alluring and charming; a way we don’t normally see him.
Theirs is a sweet romance, but immediately one spots the seeds of a man who loves his “profession” (read murderous “calling”) above all else, as Reggie leaves his date sitting alone at restaurant tables while tending to “business.” That would be the business of face-punching minions caught skimming.
Once married, at Frances’s behest, Reggie considers ditching the life. Can a leopard change its spots? Can a Kray un-cray-cray?
No Love for Ronnie
Ronnie’s the full-on cruel, promiscuous berserker who’s done time in a mental hospital and needs pills to function halfway normally. However, curiously, he’s also got the air of a matron, content to putter about in slippers, tending to his aging mum, and with a connoisseur’s interest in the art of tea.
With no wife attempting to sow a bit of shame in the clearly barren landscape of his soul, Ronnie’s a lurid, unstable, bellowing, bull-in-a-china-shop Shrek of a man.
No plot. When we meet them, the boys have already “made their bones,” albeit as small-fry gangsters at the film’s outset, and the movie simply follows them up and back down the mountain of their misdoings, while not giving us much insight to their motivation.
What makes them fascinating for the first part of the film is their prodigious lack of fear. It’s a hugely charismatic thing—a lack of fear. Both boys boxed in their youth, and the clear relish for brutal beat-downs is mesmerizing, as when, beaten beyond recognition, Reggie manages to still pull a Hannibal Lecter type trick out of a hat, on a big brute of a prison guard.
Even though they were twins, as mentioned, Ronnie Kray was a paranoid, psychopathic schizophrenic, while Reggie got all the genetic marbles in the form of looks and charm. Relatively speaking. Tom Hardy’s got all the genetic marbles. The actual Reggie Kray, not nearly so much.
A personality is much like putting something in a burlap bag—you can tell from the outside if there’s a beach ball or a cardboard box in there. Thus, in portraying Ronnie, Hardy shapes the crazy soul-innards, makeup-wise, with bad teeth, ’60s dark-framed spectacles, puffy nose, and puffy cheeks slightly a la the king of gangster portrayals—Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” It’s an acting tour de force, if a bit scenery-chew-y.
Speaking of chewing, the deep Cockney accents of both brothers are nearly unintelligible early on, like speaking through a mouth full of marbles. Hardy either leans less on the accent, later on, or we become acclimatized to it. Either way, it’s a bit like Brad Pitt’s over the top unintelligible gibberish in “Snatch,” and while at times frustrating, lends a bit of authenticity.
Furthermore, speaking of chewing (as in Tyson-type ear chewing), they have a brotherly knock-down-drag-out bar fight that’s at once brutal and funny, with the normally deadly stoic and glumly sarcastic Ronnie betraying his true leanings with some hilarious high-pitched shrieking. This is a CGI tour de force.
As I said in a recent review, “You know how it’s always slightly disappointing, at the end of a biopic, when they show the photo of the real person the movie is about? Never as dashing as the actors portraying them?”
In “Legend” we don’t get to see the real Krays. But you should Google-image them. Because if Hardy looked like the real Krays, it’s doubtful we’d watch any of this movie. Hardy sheds a little light on the rapidly dwindling humanity in the Krays, but the reality of it is, if there’s such a thing as reincarnation, the Krays used up the very last of their nine lives.
Director: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Tara Fitzgerald, Taron Egerton, Christopher Eccleston, David Thewlis, Chazz Palminteri, Paul Bettany
Running Time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 20
3.5 stars out of 5