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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Kray twins go Hollywood in Brian Helgeland's shallow biopic... but Tom Hardy's magnetic double performance makes it a must-see

LEGEND
Director: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Christopher Eccleston
Running time: 131mins


Getting on for 50 years since their arrest and incarceration, the Kray twins still exert a grip on the popular imagination every bit as vice-like as the one they had on London’s criminal underworld in the 1960s. It’s embarrassing to admit it but we Brits, in the words of Danny Dyer, love a “proper naughty geezer”. It’s therefore unsurprising that Legend is one of three Kray-related movies out at the moment. The other two – Rise Of The Krays and the documentary Kray Twins: Kill Order – are straight-to-DVD/VOD affairs but reveal an appetite for twins-related mayhem that never seems quite sated.

Legend – directed and co-written by Brian Helgeland, an American who penned the screenplays for LA Confidential and Mystic River so knows his way around the crime genre – is a thoroughly Hollywood version of their story. It’s big, bright, bold and fast, full of instantly memorable set-pieces and has probably the strongest ‘hook’ of any movie released this year – Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) playing both Ronnie and Reggie in a double performance that the word ‘extraordinary’ doesn’t quite do justice.

Unlike Rise Of The Krays, Legend starts with Ron and Reg already in situ as crime kings of the capital’s east end. The latter owns Esmeralda’s Barn, a swanky nightclub full of celebrities and villains, and soon starts dating the pretty but fragile Frances (Emily Browning). Wealthy, respected and feared, it’s all going swimmingly, but there are storm clouds on the horizon. Brother Ron – a paranoid schizophrenic – is a loose-cannon with the common sense and social graces of a Gila monster, while vicious south London rival Charlie Richardson (Paul Bettany) and indefatigable copper Nipper Read (Christopher Eccleston) are circling the brothers’ operation like blood-thirsty hammerheads.

Frances – who is supposed to be the viewers’ eyes and ears in this glamorous but brutal world – narrates the Krays’ story but Browning’s much-mocked – and flatly delivered – voiceover is the weakest part of the whole enterprise and full of cack-handed lines even EastEnders would have rejected. Helgeland’s film is rather more sure-footed in its costumes and sets (perfectly evocative of mid-sixties swinging London) while I'm guessing the title itself – Legend – is meant as both celebration and condemnation. On the one hand, it is clearly in cahoots with the myth makers who have sought to turn the twins into sympathetic antiheroes. On the other, it's surely ironic; there's really nothing 'legendary' about a pair of cold-blooded killers. I think it’s what they call having your cake and eating it.


Of course, the big cockney elephant in the room banging out Knees Up Mother Brown on the old Joanna is Peter Medak’s 1990 film, The Krays, starring Spandau Ballet brothers Gary and Martin Kemp. The pop stars aren’t always convincing as Ronnie and Reggie, some of the symbolism (two-headed children, snakes, crocodiles) is clumsy and the almost complete absence of the police is bizarre, but in many ways it’s a substantially better film than Legend. The supporting characters are stronger for a start, especially Jimmy Jewel’s boozy old charmer Cannonball Lee and Steven Berkoff’s seethingly homophobic George Cornell. Perhaps because of its proximity to the actual events and people – both Krays were still alive in 1990 – it has an authenticity Helgeland’s film can’t hope to match.

Oddly enough, The Krays belongs not to the brothers Kemp but to Billie Whitelaw as the twins’ mum, Violet. Medak entertains an interesting notion – that the Krays were the product of embittered East End matriarchs (Violet, her mum and sister), who’d lived through the privations of war, had had their fill of feckless, emasculated men and simply weren’t going to swallow any more shit from authority figures either. At times it almost plays out like a feminist revenge fantasy, which is astounding considering the macho subject matter.

Legend has no truck with anything as highfalutin as subtext and, to be honest, would only be worth a WW rating if not for Hardy. He eschews the reptilian swagger of the Kemps for something far bigger and broader, filling every frame of every scene. Neither his Ronnie or Reggie are at all subtle or nuanced but they are both utterly magnetic (one critic suggested Hardy deserved a Razzie for his portrayal but that’s an opinion every bit as deranged as any act the twins ever committed). As Reg he’s the handsome, cocksure lad about town, as Ron he’s a tragicomic grotesque, like something out of the League of Gentlemen’s Royston Vasey. Many of his scenes are played for laughs but there’s always a frisson of menace lurking just below the surface. The sheer malevolence etched across Ron’s face at an identity parade as he stares out a witness who saw him commit murder is truly the stuff of nightmares.

Hardy’s double-performance is a real crowd pleaser (you can easily imagine gangs of lairy lads shouting Ron’s line “A shoot-out is a shoot-out… like a Western” at each other after one too many on a Saturday night), but it’s enhanced immeasurably by the seamless way Helgeland and his team combine the two characters on screen. If you look hard enough you can just about spot when a stand-in is being used – odd back-of-head shots and other slightly unorthodox angles – but for the most part the combination of Hardy as Reg and Hardy as Ron is a technical marvel. This is never truer than during a brutal fight between the two which is the film’s centrepiece. A glorious bollock-crunching, face-slapping, nose-thumping punch-up, it’ll make you laugh as much as it’ll make you wince. It’s almost slapstick, and therefore perfectly in keeping with the rest of Helgeland’s riotously enjoyable but ultimately rather shallow film.

Rating: WWW

Ratings

WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthwhile
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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