There are a lot of things that could have given us hope for Legend. For one thing, it stars Tom Hardy, rarely a point against a movie. And not just one Tom Hardy— Legend gives us two, as Hardy plays famed real-life gangster twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray. That alone may be enough to get you into the theater, and there’s still more to sell it. Christopher Eccleston does a bang-up job in the supporting cast; as does Emily Browning (from the criminally underseen God Help the Girl), whose bone structure is so epically crafted that when she and Hardy have scenes in profile it looks like a Roman statue face off. Add to that a general lush, swanky 1960s aesthetic, a kicky period soundtrack, and some fists and cars and things periodically crashing into stuff, and you’d think you’d have a guaranteed— well, if not hit, at least a good couple of hours ahead of you.
Unfortunately, those few gems are just about all this movie gives us. Hardy’s performance (or performances) are good, and solid, if not spectacular. As Reggie Kray, Hardy is a charming gangster fresh out of prison, who’s figured out the undying similarities between the upper crust elite of London and the city’s criminals, and cashes in as the owner of a nightclub. He’s the perfect, smooth-talking, smooth-looking fit for that role, unlike his brother Ronnie. Ronnie is a mush-mouthed, slightly bloated, gay paranoid schizophrenic. Each role has its moments, but the whole movie shifts fairly clumsily between brotherly infighting, gangster shenanigans, and tormented love story. By having the film narrated by Reggie’s new love Frances (Browning), it does serve to keep the story from being mired down in the overused crime elements, but— as she’s an outsider in everything —even, to some extent, her own story, since Reggie keeps so much from her— designating her to narrate also keeps us from being able to invest fully in any element of story.
Legend is directed and adapted by Brian Helgeland, who was also behind two of my favorite movies from high school: L.A. Confidential (which he wrote), and A Knight’s Tale (wrote and directed). As a teenager, I was in love with both of these movies, though I haven’t seen them in years. And after Legend, I don’t think I want to, for fear they won’t hold up. While Helgeland’s script is too superficial to make us care about any of these characters as fully as he (and we!) would like, the filmmaking is just as simplistic. It’s near impossible to watch this gangster movie and not think of Goodfellas. In particular, for Reggie’s nightclub life, this long, gorgeous tracking shot was clearly on the director’s mind.
Helgeland, however, is no Scorsese. His version of this scene is too long, too scattered. He has long tracking shots where they are not just unnecessary, they’re actually distracting. Legend feels, at best, like a really beautiful film school thesis project from a 22 year old guy who’s positive he’s gonna be the next Scorsese. From a director with so many hits under his belt, with a cast that includes an Eccleston and TWO Hardys, it feels like a waste of, well, everything.