As the 21st century dawned, British cinemas found themselves wildly overstocked with ropy-geezer capers. Mockney crown prince Guy Ritchie (Snatch) led the way, crafting criminals like Boris the Bullet-Dodger and Hatchet Harry in the image of his idols: the Kray Twins and their gang. None of Ritchie’s imitations come close to the real deal. With Brian Helgeland’s Legend, out November 20, the menace and magnetism of the Krays and their milieu are finally realized in a modern British gangster flick that can square up to its more established American cousins without embarrassing itself.
The most obvious place to start if you’re in the market for a British Scarface is East London, and in the 1960s you could find two of them for the price of one, a typically East End kind of bargain. Identical-twin brothers Ronnie and Reggie Kray were vicious thugs who threatened journalists and cops, murdered rivals, and terrorized witnesses. They ran protection rackets, committed armed robberies, and owned top-drawer nightclubs frequented by celebrities who enjoyed the glamour of hanging out with such very bad boys in much the same way as Vegas stars rubbed shoulders with the Mafia. “We were fucking untouchable,” as Ronnie put it in his autobiography.
That evocation of the decade when London swung is integral to Legend’s slick and slightly calculated charms. Picture Michael Caine as Alfie, the quintessential cheeky chappie. He turns to the camera, and instead of a saucy wink, he’s brandishing a knuckle-duster. That’s the Krays. Despite their dark side, the twins were loved by the community they’d grown up with and then ruled with an iron grip. They were local lads who’d made good, the notorious “East End wall of silence”—a Londonian form of omertà—protecting them from ever being ratted out by the people whose neighborhood they controlled.
This contradiction makes the dual role of the Krays a gift to any actor, and in Legend, Tom Hardy doesn’t just accept this gift politely; he tears the paper off with gusto and eats the receipt. The key to his charm as Reggie is his spot-on 1960s Essex accent: a hint of little boy lost and a whole lot of wheelerdealer, with a core of steel reminding us what a nasty bastard the supposedly more-civilized twin really was. It’s the kind of part we know Hardy can play the hell out of. As Ronnie, the genuinely cray Kray, he’s terrifying. It’s the best show he’s given us since his brutal breakout role, in 2008’s Bronson. I quickly forgot I was watching one actor perform in a recreation of Swinging London. I was watching two men rule a city.