Legend, which came out in 2015, is a British true-crime story about a pair of London gangsters who also happened to be twins and minor celebrities in the history of the London underworld. The Kray Twins, Ronnie and Reggie, were nightclub owners, extortionists and racketeers who apparently cleared bearer bonds for the Mafia. They rubbed shoulders with stars and had some social cachet, splashed with violence. They both ended up imprisoned for life for killing different people, and the movie tells the story of how they lived and loved and lost.
The main draw of the film is a bit of a gimmick, with Tom Hardy playing both Ronald and Reggie Kray, but it's a gimmick that works really well and makes an otherwise uneven film very compelling. The production design is executed expertly. It is a period piece, set in 1960s London, and the sets and costumes give it the flash and sizzle you would want for the setting (I am guessing, since I wasn't born then). Tom Hardy looks sharp as hell in his three-piece suits, and the world-building the film does creates an impression of a place you would want to see and visit.
The allure of the film's world doesn't go much deeper than the surface though. The narrative plays out in a weirdly disjointed fashion, with a clunky voice-over by a character who turns out to be dead in what I guess qualifies as a twist? But there is nothing about either the people or the events of the film that are particularly seductive. The genius of the Godfather or Goodfellas is that they make being a gangster seem cool and dangerous. But even though Legend does look cool, it never made me feel like I wanted to be a part of its world or that the people in the world were very compelling (one notable exception aside). Part of this is the way the plot unfolds; it drives forward in leaps and bounds, sometimes skipping over important bits, wasting actors like Paul Bettany in weirdly unimportant roles, stranding almost all of its characters on islands of irrelevance, and never generating any interesting conflicts or relationships or stakes.
It is hard to describe exactly, but there is something missing from the film's narrative and character development. I suppose the most obvious explanation for this is that Tom Hardy simply eclipses them all. Hardy, one of the few true natural forces we have in the acting business at the moment, dominates this movie with his dual-performance. He plays a version of himself, and an uglier, more violent and more psychotic version of himself. At times I forgot that it was the same actor playing both roles. He gives a truly great performance in this film, which should have at least got him an Oscar nomination (he was instead nominated for the wrong role that year). Hardy has that animal magnetism, the charm, the charisma, the total commitment to the role that the all-time greats like Brando brought to the craft, so watching him in almost anything (and especially a meaty role like this) is a pleasure.
But his performance is impressive and powerful mostly for its rawness. He is compelling whenever he is on the screen. But there isn't a whole lot for his characters to work with, other than admiring the performance for its sheer impressiveness. Reggie's relationships with his wife and his rivals and his friends are under-cooked and unsatisfying and there isn't a whole lot to work with, almost as if the movie itself became so fascinated and intoxicated with Hardy's performance that it got distracted from its own purpose. Director Brian Helgeland has a number of films (especially LA Confidential) which fail tobe better than the sum of their parts so this is not a new phenomenon for him.
In short, the film is great as an acting showcase for one of the world's most talented actors and for that alone is worth seeing. The pulp appeal of gangster dramas is always hard to completely fuck up, so the film isn't hard to get through. It just some times feels like it could be doing more if it was in the hands of a better director or writer, and that Hardy's performance deserved to be in a more interesting film.