I always have hope for Brian Helgeland movies. It doesn’t matter how many times I don’t like his latest as much as I like PAYBACK, I keep having expectations. He also wrote A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, ASSASSINS and BLOOD WORK and won that Oscar for L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, but PAYBACK is the Platonic ideal I keep coming back to.
Fairly or not, I associate Helgeland with that Richard Stark feel, that clean, precise storytelling, writing with a badass swagger, no need for fancypants show off business. His new one LEGEND is about London gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray (see THE KRAYS review from yesterday) in the early ’60s. Being based on real crimes stretched across a couple years doesn’t lend itself to that type of tight plotting, it’s more of a character study and relationship drama. But it is a little bit like PAYBACK (theatrical cut) in tone. It follows a charismatic criminal anti-hero who is funny, badass, and a terrible person. It’s darkly humorous, and violent, and set to alot of good soulful music (Booker T and the MGs, The Meters, Young-Holt Unlimited).
I guess it would be accurate to say it’s kinda Guy-Ritchie-esque, but I liked it more than some of those. It’s Guy-Ritchie-esque only in a good way.
Like Peter Medak’s take on the story, THE KRAYS, this one is told in first-person narration by a woman. But this time it’s not their mother, it’s Reggie’s poor wife Francis (Emily Browning from SUCKER PUNCH). The story focuses on Reggie and his relationship with Francis, with the crazier brother Ron as sort of a side character and threatening presence who’s always out there and liable to start trouble. Like if Jaws was your twin brother.
This Francis is much more of a presence and real character than in THE KRAYS. She’s the square young sister of the Krays’ lieutenant/buddy. She falls for Reggie, to the horror of both her mother and his. Her mom wears black to the wedding, his just makes her feel unwelcome through passive aggressive cruelty. She’s a card, but of course her biggest sin is pretending the twins are her little angels when she knows they’re going around terrorizing everybody for protection money.
Francis is going to school trying to become a secretary, she didn’t expect to come home on a break and fall in love with a guy who carries guns and owns night clubs. She gets a thrill out of it but treats it like some youthful wildness that will pass soon. She thinks her Reg can go legit. She gets dragged into a whole lot of trouble just because he has a soft spot for her and is nicer to her than he is to other people. Most of the time. Not always. It’s not worth it.
For most of his day he is nice. He tries to be more peaceful than his brother, but when he’s mad at you you’re in trouble. He’s a big fan of pretending to be understanding and forgiving and then hitting you in the face when your guard is down. In confrontations with rival gangsters he’s easy to root for, acting casual, drinking tea and seeming to not notice everybody’s pointing guns at him.
And then Ron runs in swinging two hammers. He’s the crazy one. I mean that literally – Reggie’s always telling him to “take your tablets.” He’s paranoid and psychotic, stiff and awkward, says bizarre things, is defiantly (or maybe cluelessly) out of the closet. When Chazz Palminteri as a guy working for Meyer Lansky (good to see that guy’s still playing gangsters) mentions girls, Ron goes into a monologue about the boys he prefers. Reggie smiles and shrugs like “Hey, that’s my brother, what’re ya gonna do?” Palminteri laughs and compliment’s Ron’s “cojones” for saying something like that.
Since there is no modern equivalent to Spandau Ballet, there was no choice but to have Tom Hardy (MINOTAUR) play both Krays. I heard Hardy was first cast as Ronnie and then when he auditioned for Reggie he didn’t tell them he was already in the movie until after they gave him the role. He is such a transformative actor and was so heavily into character that he was able to play both brothers at the same time with absolutely no CGI, mirrors or nothing. If you don’t believe me go check the MAKING OF LEGEND coffee table book. I’m sure they must have one, but if they don’t then you’ll just have to take my word for it though.
To me, as a fan of Hardy, this is impossible to resist. We’ve seen the movie where it’s him by himself in a car talking on a speaker phone, now we get the dual role. There are movies that are worth watching just for the one character Tom Hardy plays, so I gotta respect a movie that’s enjoyable on its own and then has Hardy playing two different great characters. Reggie is a cool suave badass, Ron verges on a funny Mike Myers character. I love his childishness, his stubbornness, his inability to hide his grudges. There’s a scene where he and his mother reject tea made by Francis. There’s no way it’s that bad, if bad at all, but they pretend like it’s garbage and they feel bad for her and are being really understanding and empathetic about the situation. Ron hates the tea so much he stage whispers that he’s going to flush it.
He’s a total weirdo who says hilarious things. Since he’s out of line pretty much at all times the few moments when he actually says something nice are kinda touching. But then you wonder if he’s just manipulating you.
This is a drastically different movie from THE KRAYS. The brothers are more dangerous but less distant and creepy. Their mother (Jane Wood) is a strong but less important character. Francis is the central focus. It also spends some time on Nipper Read (Christopher Eccleston, EXistenZ, GI JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA), the inspector who is continually thwarted by them until he finally gets his opening. The club life is kinda of more glamorous, with actors playing celebrities like Shirley Bassey and Sonny Liston.
It’s all headed for the same sick and tragic results, but has much more fun along the way. It has a stronger look and period feel. But it seems to be filmed in some of the same locations, so I’m assuming both of them used the real neighborhood where the Krays lived.
There’s one problem with this movie that I know will prevent it from ever catching on, and that’s that it’s fucking called LEGEND. I don’t get it at all. I actually assumed it was a name forced on Helgeland either by a clueless studio person trying to put his stupid imprint on it, or somebody intentionally trying to sabotage the movie for some Hollywood politics type reason. I mean, that sounds like something the Weinsteins would’ve changed a Jet Li movie to some years back. It’s so generic, and doesn’t seem to have much to do with the movie, and is already the title of a very famous movie that it’s more fitting for. A year from now I’m gonna look at the titles LEGEND and EPIC and I honestly won’t know which one is about the Krays and which one is a cartoon about forest fairies and bugs. They might as well have called it DAWN OF THE GUARDIANS.
So I was surprised when the very first thing on the commentary track was Helgeland explaining that he came up with the title right at the beginning. Somebody should’ve talked him out of that. Anything is better. Shit, call it EAST END DOUBLE IMPACT. Or SIN TWINS. Or KRAYZY IN LOVE. Anything.
Anyway, if you like anything with Tom Hardy in it, you will double love this. If you half like anything with Tom Hardy in it, you will love it a regular amount.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.