Ronnie and Reggie. They almost sound sweet don’t they? Like Bill and Ben the flower pot men. But they’re not. Far from it. Ronald and Reginald Kray were possibly the scariest two brothers you could hope to meet (or pray not to meet) in London in the ’50s and ’60s. Born identical twins in 1933, they worked their way up the organised crime ladder to become owners of nightclubs and casinos, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, politicans and high society types alike.
Quite a story you might say, it would make a good film. Well, it’s been done before. In 1990 Gary and Martin Kemp (of Spandau Ballet) had a crack at it and did ok, receiving mildly positive acclaim. Yet they never quite had the cajones or screen presence to really do these two guys justice.
Fast forward fifteen years and we get a much slicker production, bigger budget, better cast and, most importantly, a lead that is nothing but menace and screen presence, Tom Hardy. As an actor Hardy had had a few decent parts for a few years until Nicholas Winding Refn cast him as Charles Bronson in Bronson. A towering, menacing performance that not only put him on the map, but showed the world that right here is an actor with real swagger, real menace, and intensity in buckets.
And so the parts kept coming: an unhinged MMA fighter in Warrior, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road… yet he still hadn’t really fully opened the taps. He still hadn’t showed us what he could do.
With Legend, now he has. Most actors would relish the opportunity to play a legendary gangster, but two? Well, now you’re just being too nice. Not that being too nice is something you could associate with the Krays, but if it was just ‘a hard man’ you were after you may as well call Vinnie Jones. What Hardy has done so masterfully with this film is provide depth and likeability to both Ronnie and Reggie.
You root for them (sort of). Now that’s a hard task, and a hard ask of an actor. You need endless charisma and screen presence, and you need to pull off a convincing double role (acting opposite yourself, or a stand-in or a broom or something, it must be confusing).
In terms of story this film is based on a book by John Pearson, The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins. It was written and directed by Brian Helgeland (of L.A. Confidential fame) and focuses on Reggie and his relationship with his wife Frances (Emily Browning) and how he dealt with his increasingly volatile brother Ron.
We cover a fair amount of ground, from the start of the Krays’ rise in power to their involvement with the American mafia and British Lords and politicians. At times Helgeland veers slightly into black humour territory, particularly as Hardy gives us that wild-eyed psychotic stare that made Ron seem so menacing, channelling more than a good dollop of Bronson in the process. With Reggie he had a harder job, showing a sweet side as he wooed Frances, then turning quite frighteningly on a dime to show intense menace if something displeased him.
In both performances he utterly convinces, sucking you in, compelling you to watch what – as either Ronnie or Reggie – he’s going to do next. The rest of the cast (David Thewlis, Paul Bettany, briefly) do a fine job, but ultimately this is the Tom Hardy show and there’s barely a second of screen time in which he doesn’t dominate.
And as far as British gangster films go, this has to be up there with the greats such as The Long Good Friday, Get Carter and Layer Cake (underrated in my book). Even if you take the British bit out, this is still a gangster film worthy of that title alongside other classics from around the world. It may be a touch long and the story may lack a bit of punch (despite much punching going on) and momentum, but one cannot argue with the committed intensity of Hardy’s two performances. They’re a fair few months off but, Oscar anyone?
(Oh, and Hollywood, offer Tom more parts like this please.)