The Krays are already a big part of British cinema, and not just because there is a film about them already. The Krays and the apparent mythology that surrounds them has inspired many a queasy British gangster flick (I am obviously thinking here more of the Guy Ritchie types than either John Mackenzie or Mike Hodges, whose gangster films had a purpose). So here’s one called Legend.
Tom Hardy (tell me if you’ve heard this before) plays both Krays – the suave, Bond-like Reggie and the jittery psycho Ronnie, both over-written and over-performed for the movies. The film’s primary focus (despite a voiceover from Reggie’s wife Frances – played by Emily Browning – which unconvincingly tries to take precedence, but never does) is the relationship between the two brothers and how it lead to the undoing of the Krays’ very possibly unprecedented hold on gangland London.
First, the obvious. The film is called Legend (and, again, despite the wholly unconvincing ‘It’s All True’ narration) and it is a complete work of fiction, written and directed by a relative outsider in American Brian Helgeland. The two points to make about the outsider status of Helgeland are significant if contradictory. First, this is a film that no British filmmaker would be able to make – British cinema being somewhat less false and less at ease with its fondness for gangsters. And yet, secondly, therein lies its unexpected fun, since the film is made by a filmmaker clearly enthralled with this material and totally willing to disrespect the brutal realities behind his version of events and have fun with it. The film is indeed largely played as a comedy. Even a brutal torture scene is played for laughs.
Helgeland has clearly seen a fair share of Scorsese. His film is full of pop tunes, violence, swearing, posturing and long tracking shots roaming through the gangsters’ dens. However, what he hasn’t lifted is the seriousness of Scorsese’s cinema. The challenges to the audiences’ willingness to emphasise with whatever scumbag is projected in front of them and the truthful examinations of the damage that this violence, cruelty and largesse causes that are all consistent in his films all the way from Who’s That Knocking At My Door? through to The Wolf of Wall Street is totally missing from Legend, which prefers its Hollywood myths free of such real-world complications.
As a result, there is something utterly misjudged and unsavoury about Legend underneath the undeniable fun and frivolousness. Because it is based on real people and real murders, such a sugar-coating of Reggie Kray may make one uneasy. Worse is the fact that we never see the legendary Krays’ muscling in on and threatening some hardworking small business owner – surely their trade – only evil members of other gangs. Worse still is the scene in which Reggie rapes Frances. It is hard here not to imagine Helgeland making some kind of mental calculation – that the film will be pilloried if the scene is left out and yet will be too damaging to the film’s glossy, carefree feel if allowed to be presented honestly and truthfully. The latter would never have bothered his hero Scorsese, but Helgeland’s troubling solution to this dilemma is the only time that the camera decides to back away from the violence.
Legend then seeks to have fun with these characters and these events without having to show too much of the real pain and suffering and as such it is a classic Hollywood story, but where it could have had a challenging edge, instead it has a rotten core.