You'd have to be a great actor to play twin brothers and never -- not once -- confuse an audience about who's who. Tom Hardy is one such actor, and in Legend, he manages a neat feat: He portrays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, notorious British gangsters who took London by storm in the 1960s.
Director Brian Helgeland, who wrote the script for LA Confidential, can't quite turn Legend into a gangster classic, but his direction can be lively, and in Hardy, he has found an actor whose skills are sharp enough to play both brothers.
Consider the Krays as blunt instruments. They never seem capable of the kind of cunning found in a Michael Corleone. Their strong suit is their frightening physicality.
The story of the Krays was told before in director Peter Medak's 1990 film, The Krays. Helgeland freshens the tale by allowing Reggie Kray's wife Frances (Emily Browning) to narrate the story.
Frances is swept away by Reggie's brashness and rough charm. Inevitably, she pays a steep price for dancing a little too close to Reggie's fire.
Additionally, Helgeland populates the movie with a terrific cast of British character actors, many of whom speak with cockney accents that can reduce American ears to capturing only the gist of their conversations.
David Thewlis has a nice turn as Leslie Payne, the man who handles the Kray finances. Chazz Palminteri shows up as Angelo Bruno, an Italian mobster from the US who negotiates a deal with the Krays.
Christopher Eccleston stands out as Nipper Read, the lone representative of Scotland Yard who persists in hounding the Krays.
Still, it's Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Drop and Locke) who gives the film its kick.
Handsome and intermittently violent, Reggie becomes the more appealing of the brothers with his green Continental and lounge lizard suits.
An avowed and very public homosexual, Ron represents the psychopathic half of the Kray personality: Hardy gives Ron a demeanor that wavers between funny and frightening. Ron's muted-trumpet of a voice seems to emanate from a place that no voice should.
Helgeland's team recreates London of the '60s with style and verve: its clubs and music define a free-wheeling atmosphere in which the city's notables got a kick out of rubbing elbows with gangsters.
Although Helgeland clearly understands that such associations could be costly, he's unable to give the movie the kind of thematic weight that would have lifted Legend out the gangster ghetto.
Instead, Helgeland, who wrote the screenplay based on John Pearson's book, The Profession of Violence, falls into the trap of letting the story unfold as a series of ramshackle episodes, some steeped in Kray brutality.
At 122 minutes, Legend probably overstays its welcome, but behind Reggie and Ron, you'll find one of the best movie actors of our time bringing an explosive power to the screen -- or maybe that's two helpings of explosive power for the price of one movie.