Numerous critics have been slating Tom Hardy’s movie ‘Legend’, about the notorious gangsters Ron and Reggie Kray, on the grounds that it misrepresents history, glamorizes and Americanizes violence and the gangster life, and generally does a poor job of showing the REAL Krays and the REAL social cost of their bloody trail of terror splattered from London’s East End to Soho.
But they’re wrong to attack it for that, and I’ll tell you why.
‘Legend’ is a taut action gangster story, full of threat, charm, massive amounts of cocksure grinning, and of course sudden, bloody violence. Yeah, that’s what we watch these kinds of movies for. Tom Hardy plays both Ron (not such a psychopath) and Reggie (criminally insane) in a really magnetic way, like opposite poles.
His Ron is a charming wheeler dealer, always in control (though less convincingly so as his teeth gradually get broken and yellowed), great at glad-handing at the nightclub door and also gut-busting in the back booths. His winning grin gets him in and out of plenty of tight scrapes, many caused by his nut-bag brother Reggie.
Reggie is mad and a mumbler. I notice here that Tom Hardy just loves to play roles where you can’t quite make out what he says.
Bane- mumbly, wildly-intoned extravagance.
Mad Max- mumble to the max.
Reggie Kray- mumble like you’ve got awful flu and plums in your throat.
His Reggie reminds me very strongly of Tim Spall in Mr. Turner- where Spall seemed constantly to be on the verge of exploding. Gas just seemed to be filling him up inside, getting all pent up and giving him heartburn, indigestion, and threatening at any moment to rip out via massive flatulence or some other explosive event.
Hardy’s psychopathic Reggie seems much the same, though where for Spall it came out as art, for Ron it comes out as violence, mockery, cruelty and paranoid ravings, with a generous helping of flying spit.
And it works. The violence, the charm, the sense of potential, the push and pull between the two brothers; it’s all great fun to watch. At least it is is until the point when it stops being fun and becomes about domestic abuse, rape and murder, at which point the jolly ride we’ve been along with these two cray-cray (cray-cray-Kray?) notorious gangsters stops being a fairground ride and starts being some kind of penance.
To repeat the charge- reviewers are attacking the carnival feeling of the movie: that it is Americanized, that it is all show and no substance, that it is wildly incorrect and trivializes the suffering the Krays caused.
I’m thinking something quite different. I’m wondering if all this is entirely intentional, in a crafty case of having your cake and eating it too. The Krays loved the high life. They loved to mix it up with the aristocracy, the rich and famous; entertaining in their nightclubs a melange of London’s elites. What did those upper-crustians see in the Krays?
They saw what we see in this movie. They saw romance, brio and the twinkling hint of danger. It’s adrenaline and stilettos and James Bond. People like that stuff, they like to feel like they’re walking on some kind of edge. The Krays offered that to them, and they offer it to us through this movie.
And like everyone involved back then, we too get burned today when our main access points to the story- Ron and his young wife Francis- come apart at the seams. True colors are shown, with suicide, sadistic beatings, cold-blooded murder and paranoia coming to the fore, and suddenly we too, like the haute-couture glitterati in the front row of their clubs, beat a hasty path to the door.
My only complaint is that this final, ‘REAL costs’ part of the movie lasted too long. Yeah we need to be bashed over the head with the price of all this criminal misadventurism- but such bashing is no fun for audiences. Bash us quickly then bring down the curtain. There’s nothing more to say after that but boring moralizing, and we’re not here for a lecture- we’re here to see mad men reach out to touch the edge.
It’s a fun movie. 4 out of 5 stars.