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Monday, September 12, 2016

Netflix Recommends... Legend (2015)

* * 1/2

Director: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Tom Hardy

Several years ago now, there was a screenplay floating around written by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris that offered a fresh take on the legend of Robin Hood and it had a lot of people excited. Taking the Sheriff of Nottingham as its protagonist and turning the tale into a detective story in which Nottingham investigated the crimes of Robin Hood, it was a take that flipped the narrative and turned something familiar into something new and different. The script sold on the basis that it could give audiences something that they hadn't already seen, but somewhere between buying the project and producing it, the studio did what studios pretty much always do: they panicked. An unknown product might excite people and find an audience, but it terrifies Hollywood because if something hasn't been seen before, there's no way to predict how well it might do and what size of an audience it might find. So instead of "Nottingham," we ended up with another Robin Hood movie - "grittier," more "historical" - instead. I couldn't help but think of that as I sat reflecting on Legend, a film which I suspect won the opportunity to be made on the basis that it could offer a take on a story that we've already seen (more or less) a hundred times that was different enough to seem new, only to lose courage and become something more rote and familiar instead.

In the 1960s, twin brothers Reggie and Ronnie Kray (Tom Hardy) ruled London's East End. Reggie, the suaver and more ambitious of the two, tries to pass himself off as a club owner, an entrepreneur, and sees himself more as a business man whose business just doesn't happen to be legal. Ronnie, a loose canon with a history of being locked up in psychiatric hospitals, sees himself as exactly what he is: a gangster. Brutalizing people, killing people, stealing things - that's what he's in it for and he can't comprehend why Reggie tries to pretend that that isn't the reality and why he couches his language to make it seem more polite and civilized. Despite their differences, they function as a team - what, exactly, Ronnie does aside from making messes that Reggie has to find a way to clean up is unclear, but Reggie is loyal to him both of his own accord as his twin, and as a result of having had it ingrained in him by their mother that Ronnie is his responsibility and he has to take care of him because he has so little ability to take care of himself - and they eventually form a business relationship with the American mob.

While the brothers' are growing and consolidating their power, Reggie begins a relationship with Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the sister of a member of the Krays' crew. A teenager when they meet, Frances is at first a bit starstruck by Reggie, seeing only the glamorous side of his life and not the violence. The reality of Reggie's circumstances begins to reveal itself to her when he does a stint in prison, but he when he tells her that he's trying to go legit, she believes him and eventually they marry. Whatever was left of the fairytale ends there, however, as very quickly Frances finds herself spending every night alone while Reggie runs his nighttime empire and turning to pills so that she can sleep through the nights and get through the days, while Reggie himself begins to become unhinged as a result of the pressures of the business and as Ronnie's behavior becomes increasingly unmanageable.

The main draw for Legend is Hardy, who equips himself well as both Reggie and Ronnie and turns them into distinct characters. Although Ronnie is visually distinguishable by his glasses, he's also distinguishable by the lowered voice register that Hardy uses for him, and by the sense that Hardy is able to give that Ronnie is broader and more squarely shaped than the muscularly slim Reggie. Each character has a presence that is entirely his own and it feels like Hardy is delivering two separate and distinct performances, which makes the whole thing seem less gimmicky than it otherwise might have. The film itself doesn't particularly distinguish itself from other gangster movies, however. As directed by Brian Helgeland, it's stylish enough (albeit in a way that makes you wonder if he sent Martin Scorsese a cheque to pay him back for all the elements stolen from Goodfellas), but it's the same basic story you've already seen over and over again on film about a criminal whose life is made to look pretty cool in the first act before descending into a nightmare in the third, his unraveling professional life mirroring the coming apart of his personal life.

Ostensibly the thing that's supposed to set this apart is that it centers on a pair of twins, but the reality of the film is that the central relationship is the one between Reggie and Frances (who acts as the story's narrator) and Ronnie is more of a supporting character. The error in this strategy becomes immediately apparent with even the most cursory bit of research about the actual Kray brothers. While Reggie Kray's story is sort of conventional compared to the stories of other crime lords, Ronnie Kray's is a little different and a lot more fascinating. Aside from stints in hospitals for the criminally insane, Ronnie was also open bisexual (though the film depicts him simply as gay) in the 1960s and in the hyper-macho world of the mob, and was involved in a political sex scandal for allegedly having arranged and participated in homosexual orgies that included some members of Parliament. Now, all of these elements are incorporated into Legend, but they exist on the margins, used as background and as a means of explaining why Reggie is starting to lose it after years of struggling to keep Ronnie in line. Ronnie's a pretty interesting character and I'm sure that the details of his strange, wild life played no small part in getting Legend off the ground, allowing it to be sold as something never seen before. If the film had been more focused on Ronnie, it might have seemed a lot more fresh and interesting. Instead it's more of your basic "charming criminal meets girl, promises her, with fingers crossed behind his back, that he's going to change his ways, then watches as his personal and professional lives blow up in unison" story that we've already seen hundreds of times before. It's a decent enough example of that kind of movie, but it's not really anything more than another face in the crowd of its genre.

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