It’s never a good idea to call time of death on an entire subgenre based on the evidence of one movie, but Legend sure makes it look like the gangster movie is on its last legs. The last gasp of a concept out of ideas, it takes the late-90’s Guy Ritchie-led British crime capers, themselves Tarantino-inspired take offs of Scorsese’s virtuosic R-rated updates of 30’s era Warner Bros gangster pictures, and pushes further into airless artifice. Writer-director Brian Helgeland, who sometimes makes good movies, like the anachronistic jousting comedy A Knight’s Tale and Jackie Robinson biopic 42, takes as his inspiration the real story of Reggie and Ronnie Kray, twin brothers who ran organized crime in the East End of London during the 1960s. Out of real conflict, violence, and crime, Helgeland spins a hyperbolic, stylized tale of colorful blood and scheming so tediously clunky and playing like lukewarm leftovers of gangster movies past, it might as well be completely disconnected from reality.
That’s the point, I suppose. It’s not named “legend” for no reason. It’s exaggerated with a self-satisfied swagger, beholden only to an outsized larger-than-life perspective. It opens on a blatantly false CGI skyline, before hopping straight into narration from a character we’ll eventually realize is speaking cheekily, and incongruously, from beyond the grave. She (Emily Browning) is the wife of a Kray, telling us the story of their rise – consolidating power through their violent tempers and a confluence of strategy and luck – and their fall – taken down by a combination of hubris and the law. Fitting a true story neatly into generic formula is a good way to strip specificities and eccentricities from the moments and individuals at play. We get tracking shots into nightclubs straight out of Goodfellas, macho posturing like Cagney lite, and random acts of violence tonally carbon copied out of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. All the while, the colors drip like a faded Technicolor musical, actors pose and chew, and the two-hour-plus runtime stretches forward with leisurely laziness.
Tom Hardy plays both Krays in a double role, showy for its variety of doubled positions and encounters it demands. The effects work is passable, but not nearly as convincing in look or performance as Armie Hammer in The Social Network, or even Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap (nearly 20 years ago!). Hardy doesn’t do much to differentiate between the men, other than Helgeland making sure one is wearing glasses and a bit more unhinged, while the other doesn’t need glasses and broods. One of them is gay, which the movie takes as an amusing side-detail instead of characterization, just one more affectation to saddle Hardy with, instead of a window into an actual person’s life. There’s never a sense that the movie has any perspective on the men, other than reciting biographical facts and reenacting moments from their criminal careers in conspicuously artificial and mildly winking style. At one point a Kray gets very upset an opponent brought a lead pipe to a fight, ruining his fantasy of getting in a shootout. “Like a Western!” he whines.
It’s annoying how much Legend knows it’s a movie. Most discouraging is how repugnantly cavalier all this falseness becomes. It takes a lot of pleasure in displaying violence, whether someone’s getting a beating, is stabbed to death, or tortured for information. Even the inevitable hand-to-hand rumble between the Krays – a clumsy feat of blocking and visual trickery – is treated as a lark, instead of a breaking point in a relationship. Collateral damage is breezed over with token cringes from onlookers. Stylish splashes of debris and blood are aesthetic displays more than narrative elements. Phony period detail and glossy slick visuals are one thing; it’s another entirely to use real pain and death as grist for goofy genre play so feather light and dull. Helgeland stocks the movie with interesting actors (Christopher Eccleston, David Thewlis, Chazz Palminteri, Paul Bettany, Taron Egerton) and flashy incident, but that none of it brings any spark of life or imagination to a routine and gratingly misjudged gangster picture makes it all the more disappointingly empty.