Tom Hardy is anyone you want him to be. Need a classically trained performer to embody the ugliest corners of humanity? Sure, he's there for you, embracing brutal, back-breaking roles in Bronson, Warrior and the forthcoming The Revenant. Need a smooth operator to add some life to your blockbuster? Okay, there he is in Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and This Means War. Or perhaps you just want someone's gorgeous mug to star in your latest online meme or pose with your puppy for an insta-viral sensation? Hardy's good for that, too.
It almost doesn't matter who the real Tom Hardy is – as long as he's in good directorial hands his best self shines through, which makes Legend a difficult, puzzling sell. Mostly, it's a standard crime saga, charting the rise and fall of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, real-life mobster twins who terrorized London's underworld for a good chunk of the 1960s. Liberally borrowing from Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas/Casino handbook, director Brian Helgeland uses long-take shots through boisterous clubs, unreliable narration and splashes of violence to create a drama of little surprise and even less impact.
But then there's Hardy. As both the smooth and confident ladies' man Reggie and his gay, volatile brother, Ronnie, the actor expertly crafts two wholly different characters with ease. It's a feat more impressive than anything else in the film, elevating Helgeland's production from mediocre biopic to something close to high art.
As the brothers Kray squabble over business and blood, it's all too easy to accept the on-screen illusion Hardy and Helgeland create. Identical-twin performances have been attempted before (from Jeremy Irons's creep gynecologists in Dead Ringers to the forcibly wacky hijinks of Michael Keaton's many selves in Multiplicity), but never has the cinematic trick been so convincing as it is here.
It's almost understandable that the rest of the film doesn't live up to its central performance(s). Helgeland and his team have created a seamless and almost organic special effect, one that involves everything from the cinematography to the digital-effects crew to the makeup department to, of course, Hardy himself. It's just that everything else surrounding Reggie and Ronnie feels like an afterthought.
The narrative beats are weak. The emotional arcs are predictable. Secondary characters, including Emily Browning as Reggie's neglected wife, Frances, never get as much attention from Helgeland as they ought to. Subplots – a dalliance with American Mafiosos, the effort by Scotland Yard to lock the boys up – come and go. It's all watered down to an unacceptable degree.
Toward the film's last act – a stretched-out chunk that could have easily been cut by 20 minutes – the film's flimsiness becomes impossible to ignore, no matter how good Hardy is. It's a remarkable turn to be sure, but Helgeland needs the actor to carry more weight than any one performer should ever be asked to shoulder.
Legend needs Hardy to be its rock, its soul, its everything. This time, it's too much to ask.