Tom Hardy is Ronnie Kray. And Tom Hardy is Reggie Kray. And Tom Hardy is the best — and pretty much the only — reason to check out this rather shockingly laudatory crime thriller based on the life and, er, work of two of the most notorious gangsters London has ever witnessed. As both of the identical Kray twins, Hardy is a wonder, carrying his body, comporting his face and subtly shifting his voice in ways that never leave the viewer in any doubt as to which brother he is embodying at any given moment (though the eyeglasses Ron wears help, too).
But here's the problem with Legend: While Reg may be a relative voice of reason and lucidity next to Ron, whom one shrink deems "certifiably insane" and likely an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, they are both sociopaths. They are violent, narcissistic men with no thought for anyone but themselves (except, perhaps, the mother who worships them) as they rule the criminal underworld of London's East End in the 1960s. They are not mythic or heroic or legendary, but writer-director Brian Helgeland — working from the book The Profession of Violence by John Pearson — treats them as such, introducing us to them as "gangster princes of the city they meant to conquer" and depicting them as glamorous, sometimes even amusing, in their viciousness. There is no irony in the rhapsodic perspective of Reg's girlfriend, later wife, Frances Shea (Emily Browning), who dreamily narrates the story via her love-hate relationship with Reg; and there is no hint of appreciation for Frances' delusion that Reg will someday somehow go straight.
There's a bigger, better story hinted at here, one that places the Krays in a context of how organized crime operates and what ultimately brought them down, but opportunities for taking that direction come and go unacted upon. Chazz Palminteri arrives as an emissary from Meyer Lansky, who is bent on making London "the Las Vegas of Europe," which we now know never happened; it feels like that could be because the Krays didn't capitalize on it for some reason, but this sidebar goes nowhere. And Paul Bettany as a rival crimelord and Christopher Eccleston as the cop determined to stop the Krays are, well, criminally underused.
Legend ends up feeling like Goodfellas-lite, deploying all the clichés of the genre but failing to come to any true understanding of what drives men like the Krays. Even if we cannot sympathize with their motives, we should understand them. And we never do.