With the plethora of films (mainly of the straight to DVD variety), books and documentaries based on the notorious exploits of the Kray twins, you would naturally come to expect that there is no possible way to make a thrilling, visionary new take on tried and tested material. You would be exactly right. Based on John Pearson’s 1972 non-fiction bestseller The Profession of Violence, Legend tells us everything we already know about the Kray twins in a way only slightly more interesting than what we’ve seen before. Legend will likely replace 1990 biopic The Krays as the go-to cinematic imagining of the duo’s life story, simply because Tom Hardy is a better actor than both guitarists from Spandau Ballet put together- and I know this much is true.
With an actor of his calibre in a menacing dual role, you would expect him to unleash the campy histrionics he memorably brought to the role of that other notorious British prisoner, Charles Bronson, in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s bizarre biopic. Instead, he feels oddly reigned in, even during a set piece in which he literally wrestles with himself- its not a bad performance, just one that feels like it has so much wasted potential due to the uninteresting direction from Brian Helgeland. Despite the violence and the attempts at black comedy, it still feels like a respectable attempt at making a mainstream-friendly biopic, toning down the strange edges to this story as much as possible, even as they get increasingly soaked in blood. With so few films receiving the 18 rating by the BBFC in the UK these days, it is a disappointment that when a major one comes along, it feels as middle of the road as this. It is less an example of “that shit Kray”, so much as “that shit Kray twins biopic”.
The movie just about escapes from “lads mag movie” purgatory (the sort of generic action/gangster film that is advertised solely with glowing reviews from both Nuts and Zoo magazine) with the decision to have the film be narrated by Reggie’s wife Frances, here played by Emily Browning. This is a wise decision on paper- the Kray twins story singularly appeals to men with its tales of blood soaked violence and dreaming of “owning London”, with nothing to appeal to the stereotypical female viewer, or the majority of viewers of any sex who demand some narrative purpose to be hand in hand with the carnage. Sadly, this leads to a major problem; Frances is never present for any of the more gruesome events that unfold and is repeatedly referred to as being the only person kept in the dark about all the comings and goings. Yet she narrates all of the events like she has some insight. For those of you who are already aware of the Kray’s story (and with the aforementioned plethora of films, books and docs about them, why wouldn’t you be?), you know that it is pretty much impossible for her to have this insight. As this voiceover narration doesn’t originate from the source novel, it is an odd inclusion- one that seemed like a good idea, but is utilised utterly poorly.
If you don’t want a spoiler for something that happened in real life half a century ago that has already been covered extensively, please skip to the next paragraph now. After she commits suicide, she still narrates the story- despite the fact there was no point in her life for her to have learnt any of the information she is telling us, at least not within the narrative the film is presenting. As for the knowing “I’m dead but I’m still narrating!” voiceover, this is a trope we can really put to rest. After Sunset Boulevard used it well back in the early 50’s, nobody has used it to such a good effect since- it has been a moribund trope long before the Krays were even active.
As a screenwriter, Brian Helgeland has won enormous acclaim and a fully stocked awards cabinet with his screenplays for crime sagas like L.A Confidential and Mystic River. As a director, he hasn’t been as successful- although he does deserve some recognition for being the man behind the mightily fun Heath Ledger vehicle A Knight’s Tale. His directorial style is anonymous to the point of being utterly bland. What starts out as something that feels like is going to build up to being a big Scorsese-style crime saga fizzles out halfway through to become a dreary domestic drama with the occasional flutter of ultraviolence. It is telling that no director with a unique style has tackled the Kray’s story before; there is plenty here that would be thrilling if it was made in a way that was more visually stylistic. On the other hand, Helgeland’s screenplay here isn’t as interesting as his previous crime dramas, which would suggest that not even a director of a Scorsese calibre could make this material feel fresh- after all, this story has been worn into the ground, with no new insights being offered to render this a story worth telling again.
At times, his screenplay feels frequently hacky- casual conversation gets frequently interrupted in the later stages as maniac twin Ronnie seems to end every conversation with an out-of-character insight or metaphor into the meaning of life. “Is it true that people turn into ghosts whilst still alive?” he casually asks Frances at one point, in a poor attempt at foreshadowing that would be acceptable if this were a screenplay by a novice screenwriter and not a frequently award-winning one. Although these attempts at creating a deeper meaning are few and far between, they are still utterly jarring; if Ronnie Kray is as unintelligent as he is being made out to be, why is he always going back to monologues on the human condition?
As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. But now we have heard about the Kray’s exploits so many times, they just feel ordinary and bland, no matter how many hammer and knuckle-duster fistfights are thrown our way.