You know what you want to do with Tom Hardy but Hollywood doesn't. Those plush lips, that expressive face, able carriage are enough to make him the most effective actor of the era, yet in movies like The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max Fury Road Hardy is kept masked and inexpressive--emotionally mute. The new movie Legend, about Ronnie and Reggie Kray, British twin brothers and gangsters of the 1960s, uses Hardy in both roles. He struts his stuff as an actor and potential movie star and is mightily impressive.
Heartthrob actors customarily play on romantic fantasy but Hardy (who co-produced Legend) gives into his inner romance, a private fascination with personality that is the essence of an actor's motivation as well what makes certain performers intensely attractive. Whatever type Hardy portrays, as in his previous tours de force Bronson and Locke, he conveys passion. In Legend, the heinous Krays suggest alter-egos, identical in their psychotic violence but with slightly different styles: Rough-hewn Ronnie reflects the harshness of their lower class upbringing in London's East End and pretty Reginald's single-minded ambition perverts the drive to succeed.
Hardy can be seen relishing these two sides with as much fervor as Bette Davis' stunt twin performances in Dark Ringer and A Stolen Life but with a kitchen-sink dedication to realism. Every scene, every speech has the zest of quick-change artistry; Hardy is cape-flashing, cloud-of-smoke, almost magically mercurial.
Not hard to imagine Hardy's prodigal talent seducing writer-director Brian Helgeland into attempting a psychological epic about a flashy, scandalous era (referred here to as "the secret history of 1960s England") but like a bad hook-up, there's a mismatch of aggressive, overly-clever ideas: Reggie's wife Frances (Emily Browning) provides cynical Sunset Boulevard-style narration and Helgeland apes Scorsese's GoodFellas bravado with half-satirical cultural details (ironic pop songs and nightclub performers) and blunt, showy violence. (Everything that went right in Helgeland's Jackie Robinson bio-pic 41, with Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford's uncanny performances, goes wrong here.)
This leaves Hardy with a double-duty burden to work out alternating details of British machismo: Ronnie the brute and Reggie the laddish psychopath. It's the same challenge Morrissey faced in his 1990 single "The Last of the Famous International Playboys" which explored obsession with the Krays as tabloid stars and fearsome figures of Britain's misanthropic class wars. Morrissey challenged his/our romance with tough-guy eroticism. "I never wanted to kill/ I am not naturally evil/ Such things I do just to make myself more attractive to you/ Have I failed?" The last question brought moral judgment to the cultural crisis that so many filmmakers from Scorsese to Tarantino to early Guy Ritchie fall into, peddling aggression without owning up to sadism.
Hardy exposes that sickness. His schizo-twin characterizations raise Morrissey's homeboy query ("Reggie, Ronnie...Do you know my face?") yet Helgeland settles for banal sibling rivalry ("You don't understand me. I'm very fragile myself" and "I killed him because I can't kill you!"). The social horror of the Krays is reduced to some kind of berserk Robin Hoody tale.
It's a brilliant idea for Hardy to take on the Krays. A sexy great actor is needed to out the contradictions of crime, tradition, patriotism and masculine identity. His Reggie face is dreamy; his Ronnie face a comic riposte. Ronnie lists an amusing menu of boys ("Italian, a Greek, I had a Negro") and admits "I'm a homosexual. I'm a giver, I'm not a receiver. You should not hide what you are." And Hardy's sad-monster Ronnie face challenges easy empathy.
Legend needs a less pretentious title (one that doesn't interfere with Tom Cruise's Ridley Scott fantasy) and Hardy needed a genius British director--Ken Russell, Alex Cox, maybe Edgar Wright--who could appreciate his nuances and balance a nation's authentic fascination and shame.
Legend opens in New York and Los Angeles Nov. 20 and wider Dec. 11. Watch the trailer below: