It’s the Swinging Sixties and salt-of-the-Earf diamond geezers the Kray Twins, Reggie and Ronnie (Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy), rule London. Club owners and celebrity gangsters, they rub shoulders with all the big stars of the era (“We 'ad that Barbara Windsor in #ere the ovva day”), are photographed by David Bailey but still enjoy a nice cup of Rosie Lee round their mum’s gaff.
Suave and charming, when Reggie meets Frances (Browning), the fragile younger sister of his driver Frankie (Morgan), it’s lurve at first sight and he’s soon wooing her with lemon sherbets and his glamorous lifestyle, proposing marriage and swearing he’s going to go straight.
The psychotic and openly gay Ron (who dreams of building a utopia in Africa) is jealous of Francis and Reggie’s relationship though and even as the Twins forge lucrative links with the American Mafia, his mercurial nature threatens to destroy everything they’ve worked for and the police, led by the tenacious Nipper Read (Ecclestone) are determined to bring them down. Meanwhile those slags George Cornell and Jack the Hat are taking some diabolical liberties and need sorting out...
Not to be confused with Ridley Scott’s 1985 unicorn-bothering flick Legend with which it shares a title and similar acquaintance with reality, Helgeland’s film is a honey-hued exercise in nostalgic myth propagation once more serving up the familiar tale of honourable East End villains who only ever hurt vem wot 'ad it comin' and kept the streets safe for decent working class people. It’s a fantasy every bit as appealing and manufactured as Scott’s and turns the queasy exploits of a pair of vicious, swaggering sociopaths into a cartoonish celebration of shagadelic Swinging Sixties London reminiscent of the opening of Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery.
Eschewing the rise-and-fall approach of Peter Medak’s far superior The Krays, Legend opens with the Twins already the lords of all they survey, criminal princes of the city with a finger in every pie. With a worldly, knowing Sunset Boulevard-style, beyond-the-grave narration by Browning’s Frances that’s at odds with her onscreen portrayal of wide-eyed depressive innocent, Helgeland’s film is barely a gangster film at all, framing the Twins story instead as a love triangle, Frances and Ronnie fighting for Reggie’s affections, with some risibly knockabout gangland violence thrown in for comic relief, the tragic Frances a Cockney Madam Butterfly who leaves the stage in time for the co-dependent Twins self-destructive downfall.
Considering they were also key players in one of the biggest sex scandals of the era which rocked the pillars of the British Establishment (and receives a comic spin here), Legend’s also curiously sexless, Reggie and Frances’ marriage portrayed (one late-in-the-day, off-screen, implied rape aside) as a chaste affair, the film ignoring completely Reggie’s widely reported bisexuality in favour of the accepted narrative that he was as straight as a die and only turned in prison where it doesn’t count while Ronnie, who earned a reputation as a nonce for his habit of forcing his attentions on any young man who took his fancy, remains the only man fully clothed at a gay S&M orgy even while watching porn and delivering a sound thrashing with a carpet beater. He may tell Frances on their first meeting “I’m a giver, not a receiver. There’s a difference. I’m not a faggot,” but we’re never shown the evidence.
Joining the long, ignoble tradition of actors paying identical twins, Hardy, arguably one of the most talented stars working today, is awful in stereo, somehow managing the no mean feat of having zero chemistry with himself, his Reggie a swaggering Charlie-Big-Potatoes George to his Ronnie’s phlegmy, panto Lenny in an amateur East End production of Of Mice And Men. Tweedledee and Tweedledumber, the scene where the brothers come to blows is a comic set-piece funnier than any of the Summer’s comedies and less convincing than a similar scene where JCVD kicks JCVD in the face in '90s actioner Double Impact. The talented Browning meanwhile is bland and insipid in the thankless role of Frances, her spiral into suicidal depression feeling rushed despite the film’s 130-odd minute running time.
Arguably the film’s greatest pleasures are to be found on the peripheries: David Thewlis wonderfully oily as the Twins business manager Leslie Payne, a stony Tara Fitzgerld as Browning’s disapproving mother, a wonderfully sneery cameo from Paul Bettany as Charlie Richardson that nods slyly to Gangster No. 1, a camper than Mardi Gras John Sessions as the lascivious Lord Boothby while Taron Egerton is chillily impressive as “Mad” Teddy Smith, one of Ron’s boys who would go on to disappear in mysterious circumstances.
Strangely, the most sympathetic character in the film proves not to be the tragic Frances or the brothers themselves but one of their victims, Sam Spruell’s small time criminal and drug dealer Jack “the Hat” McVitie. A fantasist and pathetic running joke for much of the movie, Spruell imbues him with a humanity that’s in sharp contrast to the scenery chewing going on around him. His murder is the only moment in the film that hints at what might’ve been had Helgeland had a surer grip of his material.
It all looks very pretty; London golden and shiny as a new penny, the Savile Row suits and Carnaby Street dresses sharper than a flick knife, the sports cars flash and the nightclubs glamorous. But it all feels rather hollow, what action there is cartoonish, even scenes of vicious torture played for laughs, the characters shallow caricatures, the tone uneven. Is it a gangster movie? A love story? A tale of brotherly love and loyalty? Like Ronnie, it’s a film with a severe personality disorder, unsure what it is or what it wants to be, uncomfortable in its own skin.