BY FRED BLOSSER from cinema retro
The conventions of the gangster movie are rigidly defined, critic Robert Warshow observed in a famous 1948 essay. At heart is the character arc of the socially deviant protagonist, whether Rico Bandello, Tony Montana, or Michael Corleone: “a steady upward progress followed by a very precipitate fall.”
In Brian Helgeland’s excellent biopic “Legend” (2015), currently playing in limited theatrical release, the twin brothers Reggie and Ronnie Kray (Tom Hardy, in a dual role) are already on the upward curve of Warshow’s character arc in the 1960s London underworld as the film begins. “Reggie was a gangster prince of the East End,” Reggie’s future wife Frances (Emily Browning) muses in voiceover. “Ronnie was a one-man mob.” In the first scene, the dapper Reggie derisively brings tea to two rumpled detectives who are staking him out, the senior of whom, Inspector Nipper Read (Christopher Eccleston), is determined to bring him down. The mentally disturbed Ronnie is behind bars, but a prison psychiatrist is intimidated into clearing his early release. The doctor’s honest assessment when Reggie comes to escort his brother home: “Your brother Ron is violent and psychopathic, and I suspect he’s paranoid schizophrenic. To put it simply, he’s off his fucking rocker.”
The Krays control the run-down East End and wage sporadic turf battles with their rivals, the Richardson brothers’ “Torture Gang” in South London. When the Richardsons are sent up the river, the Krays’ extortion-based empire expands to swallow their territory. Reggie opens a posh nightclub, Esmeralda’s Barn, whose clientele of slumming celebrities impresses sheltered teenager Frances on their first date: “Oh look, is that Joan Collins?” she asks breathlessly. It is. Reggie’s financial advisor Leslie Payne (David Thewlis) tries to convince him to move into legitimate business, but the big money from the rackets is a powerful inducement to remain on the other side of the law, especially when the twins seal a trans-Atlantic partnership with Meyer Lansky through a Mafia intermediary (Chazz Palminteri). The homosexual Ronnie hosts orgies that attract a varied following, including a politically powerful Peer, Lord Boothby (John Sessions). Scotland Yard begins to close in, but the vested establishment pulls strings all the way up through the Prime Minister to protect Boothby from public scandal, and Read’s superiors order him to curtail his investigation. Ronnie murders a rival mobster in a pub, and Read thinks he’s finally got a case, but the key witness refuses to identify Kray in a lineup for fear of her family’s safety.
Hardy’s performance is a remarkable, Academy Award-worthy achievement. Part of the credit goes to the superior facial prosthetics that transform Hardy into the thuggish, bespectacled Ronnie, but even more credit goes to Hardy’s own talent and physicality. The actor gives each brother a distinctive posture, gait, and voice. The tricks used to put both characters on the screen simultaneously are seamless, notably in a long fight scene where the twins slug each other to a pulp with fists and champagne bottles. At the same time, with one actor in the dual roles, Hardy and Helgeland underscore the fact that beneath the surface, both brothers are very much alike in their propensity for violence. Reggie is simply better able to control himself. This shared volatility becomes more apparent in the second part of the movie, the downward curve of Warshow’s arc, as Reggie becomes increasingly unhinged because of a personal tragedy. When he bloodily stabs an underling, Jack “the Hat” McVitie (Sam Spruell), to death, the murder unravels the Krays’ enterprise. As the closing credits note, the brothers were sent to prison in 1968. The real-life Ronnie died in 1995, Reggie in 2000.
Cinema Retro fans are likely to get a charge out of the movie’s 1960s costumes and cars, the stream of oldie hits on the soundtrack (when’s the last time you heard “Soulful Strut” or “The ‘In’ Crowd”?), and the scenes of music divas Timi Yuro (Duffy) and Shirley Bassey (Samantha Pearl) performing at Reggie’s club. Pearl doesn’t sing “Goldfinger” in her cameo as Bassey, but there’s still a one-degree association between “Legend” and 007 that should interest Bond fans: Helgeland’s script was based on a 1973 biography of the Krays by John Pearson, who also wrote two superlative books in the Bond canon, “The Life of Ian Fleming” and “James Bond: The Authorized Biography.” The film’s supporting performances are outstanding, with Thewlis and Spruell in particular nearly giving Hardy a run for his money. The movie suggests a host of comparisons with other gangland classics, including the British productions “The Criminal” (Joseph Losey, 1960) and “Get Carter” (Mike Hodges, 1971), which bookended the actual Kray era; Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1989), from which Helgeland clearly draws inspiration; and Helgeland’s own “Payback” (1999); in that film, Mel Gibson’s character Porter and Gregg Henry’s manic Val seem like early foreshadowings of the Reg/Ron duality. If “Legend” inspires you to watch or re-watch those pictures, all the better.
If I have a quibble with the film, it’s with the title “Legend,” which isn’t very evocative of a gangster saga. Worse, it poses the risk of confusion with a very different movie, Ridley Scott’s 1986 fantasy-adventure with Tom Cruise and Mia Sara. “The Krays” might have better done as a title, except that -- in fairness to Helgeland, I should point out -- it was already taken as the title of a 1990 movie by Peter Medak, with Gary and Martin Kemp as Ronnie and Reggie. The Medak version filled out the details about the twins’ early lives more thoroughly than Helgeland does, and it’s not a bad film itself, if not as riveting and stylish as “Legend.” It’s currently streaming on Netflix.