‘Legend’: Tom Hardy’s choices highlight pedestrian crime drama

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For a Tom Hardy junkie like myself, seeing Hardy playing twin British gangsters — one straight, one gay — in 1960s London is about as good as a premise gets.

The good news: Hardy creates two memorable characters, making some bold and always entertaining if not entirely successful choices.

The bad news: Somehow, the fictionalized version of the terrifying, violent and twisted Krays manages to be pedestrian and derivative for long stretches.

At times “Legend” is achingly obvious, even with its musical selections. Any movie that cues a wedding scene with “Chapel of Love,” and hammers home one character’s consuming, suicidal tendencies to the sounds of “Make the World Go Away” is practically announcing it’s not striving for subtlety or greatness.

As was the case with the Johnny Depp vehicle “Black Mass” earlier this year, we’re watching a great actor playing a brutal sociopath (in this instance, sociopaths plural) with neither the colorful madness, the moral ambiguity or the convenient/contradictory codes of loyalty exhibited by gangsters in such films as “Goodfellas” and of course “The Godfather.”

These guys are just thugs with limited worldviews.

Through the miracle of modern-day film technology (and a few scenes where it’s obvious a body double is being used when the twins hug or fight), Hardy is given the platform to plausibly play both Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the infamous twin brothers who ruled London’s hardscrabble East End in the 1950s and 1960s. Even a scene in which the brothers sit side by side and make contact with each other is almost seamless.

And in large part thanks to Hardy’s enormous versatility, we believe Reggie and Ronnie as two very different, very distinct characters. (Armie Hammer did fine work as both Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network,” but let’s face it, they were two of the same.)

Hardy’s Reggie looks like a bulked-up version of a young Paul Newman — a handsome, stylish devil who favors flashy jewelry and uses his cigarette and/or cigar as a prop as he presides over a growing empire that includes running a nightclub and casino, shaking down local business owners, and protecting his turf in bloody battles with gangsters from the other side of town. (A scene in which Reggie and his twin brother face off against a mob of rivals revels in the violence and dares us not to laugh. I’ll admit it was darkly funny.)

Reggie’s twin Ronnie is of course the same age, but everyone treats him as the unpredictable, unhinged, oddball younger brother — and that’s putting it mildly. In the world of “Legend,” Ronnie’s quite open about his homosexuality, and even most of his fellow macho gangsters seem to accept it.

The problem isn’t Ronnie being gay. The problem is Ronnie is mentally ill, and when he’s off his medication, he goes from eccentric to flat-out psycho.

Hardy dons thick glasses and flashy jewelry, slicks his hair back and even affects a different speech cadence as Ronnie. It’s a comically mesmerizing performance, even if it doesn’t always seem to fit the ugly acts of violence committed by Ronnie. He seems to hate everyone who comes between him and his twin brother, from the Krays’ arrogant but pragmatic business advisor Leslie Payne (David Thewlis) to Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the fetching, freckle-faced local girl who becomes Reggie’s wife.

Writer-director Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”) makes the curious choice to have Frances act as the narrator for “Legend,” which only manages to mute our involvement, as she often talks about being an outsider in her own relationship, what with Reggie’s reckless criminal activities and his undying devotion to a family (including the twins’ mother, an overly protective piece of work) and sometimes abusive treatment of Frances.

It’s as if Karen from “Goodfellas” or Kay from “The Godfather” narrated those films from their points of view.

“Legend” is a bad title for a film that doesn’t quite succeed in relating how these brothers became legends. They come across more as a couple of nasty, ruthless, deeply dysfunctional thugs who seemed to know it was only a matter of time before their careless, violent, not particularly sophisticated ways brought them to their knees.

[s3r star=2.5/4]

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Brian Helgeland, based on the book “The Profession of Violence” by John Pearson. Running time: 131 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual and drug material). Now showing at local theaters.

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