It seems as though every year we get at least one Goodfellas knock off. An eccentric gangster film with big performances that takes us though years and years of some of the most deplorable people on this planet tearing at the pillars of society. Some work, some don’t. Earlier this year Black Mass made a flailing swing and a miss at the mantle, too muted to be stylish and yet too cartoonishly acted to be taken seriously. In fact, it’s hard to really place a finger on Goodfellas’ pulse to extract just what was so good about it. Legend, the latest contender to the throne, has certainly picked up a few tricks from the best of it’s predecessors, as well as a few of the shortcomings. However, it has one, or should I say two, aces in the hole that no crime film has been blessed with yet. Tom Hardy.
The film takes place over the course of the 1960s, following the true story of local crime kingpins Reggie and Ronnie Kray (both portrayed by Hardy). Reggie, the more clean cut and stable of the two, attempts to balance enforcing a deeply corrupt night-club with pursuing a somewhat regular life with his girlfriend Frances (Emily Browning). Ronnie, on the other hand, lives for violence and crime. Relishing in the only thing he knows, while constantly creating problems with his unstable behavior, Ronnie consistently makes running the brothers’ growing crime syndicate difficult.
The main attraction here is undoubtably Hardy, and boy does he deliver. The gimmick of having him play both brothers could have easily come across as silly, but he dives so deeply into both Reggie and Ronnie that after a while it might be easy to forget that they are in fact the same actor. Everything about both characters’ outward physical posture, manner of speaking, and internal characterization feels completely distinct. Reggie is the one who pulls us into the film, his clean cut charm making it easy to follow him though all of his atrocities, but Ronnie is by far the meatier role. Despite the somewhat Hamburglar-esqe voice Hardy chooses, Ronnie is an unpredictable joy to watch. Not just the angry brute, but also a somewhat sensitive man battling severe mental illness, we hold on to every word out of his mouth. Even when the movie is coming up short in other areas, Not only is the technology used to put both characters on screen utterly seamless, but Hardy’s performances are such a master-class that there’s at least something interesting on screen at all times. This film only further cements him as perhaps this generation’s most fascinating performer.
There are also some fun supporting turns from the likes of Christopher Eccleston, David Thewlis, and Kingsman break-out Taron Egerton here, even if their characters don’t get a whole lot to do. Egerton in particular is a blast of energy as Ronnie’s live-wire boyfriend, and it’s a shame that he’s basically forced to the background the whole time. However, the film does have one major weak link in Emily Browning’s Francis. While Browning does a perfectly fine job in the role, the character is a constant distraction from the narrative. Far too much time is spent on Reggie’s infatuation with her, and there is never any real reason for it. He’s just in love with her because she’s around. Even more glaring, Francis narrates the story with some of the worst-written story telling dialogue I’ve ever heard. It’s utterly cringe-worthy, spoon-feeding the audience information that is already made clear by the fairly broad storytelling.
Writer/Director Brian Helgeland (who wrote LA Confidential) draws heavily from the stylistic choices of not only Martin Scorsese, but Guy Ritchie as well. There’s long tracking shots, strategic uses of period music, and bloody fight scenes galore. It’s certainly nothing original, but it’s certainly entertaining. There’s a snappy, comic-bookish feel to the whole affair, keeping the more emotional beats from ever really distracting from the fast pace of the story. Considering that very story is essentially the typical rise/fall mobster tale that we’ve seen a thousand times before, it might as well be brought to life in a way that stresses entertainment above all else.
Legend is certainly nowhere near a great crime film, but it certainly is an entertaining one that happens to feature one of the most impressive performances of the year at it’s center. Even when it falls apart a bit, it’s certainly never boring. Helgeland is so intent on keeping the audience’s attention that he’s not only placed a masterclass of performance at the film’s center, but infused the whole thing with life, style, and humor (even if those qualities feel derivative). If nothing else, it proves that Tom Hardy just might be able to do just about anything, and poses as a solid audition for him to perhaps appear in a truly legendary crime film in the future.