The Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, were to 1960s London very roughly what Whitey Bulger was to 1980s Boston — a smaller body count, perhaps, but even more notoriety during their criminal peak. To the Brits, their exploits are chapter and verse, while to American audiences, the Krays remain unknown outside a 1990 film starring the Kemp brothers from Spandau Ballet and for serving as the inspiration behind a much-loved Monty Python sketch. (The Piranha brothers, anyone?)
“Legend” seems like it might right this imbalance: a script and direction by Brian Helgeland, screenwriter of “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River,” and, as both Krays, the fearsomely talented London-born actor Tom Hardy (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”). And in fact Hardy is the main reason — make that the main two reasons — to see “Legend,” which is otherwise stylish yet derivative, colorful but meandering, intermittently entertaining and definitely too long.
The tale is narrated in banal tabloid prose — intentionally, one hopes — by Reggie’s girlfriend and eventual wife, Frances, played by the strikingly poised British actress Emily Browning (“Sleeping Beauty,” “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”). Through her eyes, we quickly realize that the identical twins are hardly identical.
Reggie is a confident charmer, with a cool head for business and mayhem. Ronnie is a maladroit, hungry for affection and primed to explode at the slightest provocation. Reggie lords over a Swinging London nightclub where movie stars and titled peers treat him as the celebrity he is. Ronnie is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with a cracked plan to establish a utopian city in Nigeria. He’s also openly gay, which the movie verges on treating as further evidence of his deviance, with a small army of sneering rent boy/gangsters straight out of a Visconti film.
Such are Hardy’s gifts that he plays opposite himself for most of the movie and you forget you’re watching one actor pretending to be two people. It’s in the body language — Reggie’s ease and Ronnie’s awkwardness — but Hardy gives the men completely different voices and as Ronnie he does something with his lips that I just can’t figure out. In one scene, the two brothers finally try to settle their rivalry with a slugfest in front of appalled gangland underlings, and underneath the animal emotions the sequence is a feat of technical wizardry and actorly craft.
Yet the movie never becomes the epic it wants to be, content to tick off the criminal chronology without establishing a larger vision. Or any vision: A scene in which Reggie brings Frances to his nightclub is a single-take imitation of the classic sequence from “Goodfellas.” The death of an unlucky thug named George Cornell (Shane Attwooll) recalls Michael Corleone’s dinner with Sollozzo in “The Godfather.” Even before Chazz Palminteri turns up as an emissary from stateside mobster Meyer Lansky, “Legend” seems beholden to the American way of crime movies. Only a queasy late-night kitchen scene with the twin’s indulgent mother (Jane Wood) feels freshly observed — but, come to think of it, “Goodfellas” and “White Heat” got there first, too.
Which is a shame, because there’s some fascinating dirt here, including politicians on both sides of Parliament who get entangled in Ronnie’s orgies. This allows the Krays to pit pols against the press and leverage their way to even greater freedom for their rackets. There’s a potentially great movie in here about the enterprise of criminality, but it gets lost amid the melodramas of Reggie’s tortured relationship with Frances, and Ronnie’s with reality.
As a director, Helgeland gets the period details right: The costumes and production design are fondly precise and the soundtrack of British pop-soul oldies is tremendous. He’s better at the moments than the full canvas, though. At one point, there’s a major twist regarding our narrator, Frances — perhaps it comes as less of a surprise to British moviegoers — but the jolt adds nothing to the film as a whole. It’s a gimmick, and little more. “Legend” is more than a gimmick, but not quite enough. The movie’s a testament to the Krays’ ability to get away with everything — for a while, anyway. But it’s better evidence of Tom Hardy’s ability to do just about anything.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Brian Helgeland. Written by Helgeland, based on John Pearson’s book, “The Profession of Violence.” Starring Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 131 minutes. R (strong violence, language throughout, some sexual and drug material).