HBO has Legend (2015) on this month, Brian Helgeland’s bio-pic of the Kray Brothers, Ronnie and Reg, twin London crime lords with a colorful but short rule over the city during its swinging London days. I first came across the Krays in Monty Python’s sketch about the Piranha Brothers, Doug and Dinsdale, a documentary parody on the brothers that manages to be broadly funny yet capture the creepy, feared af folk hero aspect of the Krays in the East End. Eric Idle plays one victim whose head Dinsdale nailed to the floor. “Well, he had to didn’t he?” says Idle. “I mean, be fair, there was nothing else he could do.” Dinsdale Piranha was terrified of a giant hedgehog, Spiny Norman, a Terry Gilliam animation, out to kill him like the crocodile after Captain Hook in Peter Pan. “Dinsdaaaaale …”, Spiny called out as he stalked him. Then there was a 1990 film about them that no one seems to like, and now this one.
Helgeland wrote LA Confidential, and like that film, Legend excels at bringing out a non-New York crime world, which is always a nice change of scenery from all the east coast mob movies. A London local might have complaints about what’s what in the East End, but I definitely felt pulled into his whole Don’t Look Back in Anger gangland. Helgeland, his production designer, and cinematographer, deserve a lot of credit their recreation. Tom Hardy plays both Krays, and he pulls off two distinctly different men. Ronnie is a grotesque, hilarious savage oaf in horned-rim glasses, an out gay man who surrounds himself with pretty boy hoods, and could easily have wandered into Python’s Piranha Brothers sketch. Scenes with Ronnie and his mother or Ronnie’s unlikely entrée into Britain’s gay aristocracy are subtly played and funny. Ronnie trying to singing along to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Somethin’ Stupid” – “and then I go and spoil it all, by saying something stupid like ‘I love you'” – at a Christmas party that turns ugly is a particularly weird funny moment. Reg is a failed boxer with dreams of being much classier than he could ever be, a Brando Terry Malloy who also wants to be Johnny Friendly. You could argue Ronnie pulled him down with his paranoid, violent behavior – they’re compared to the Gallo Brothers by US mafia boss Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri) who wants them to manage Meyer Lansky’s London casino – but, that’s only part of it. When Reg is upset with his wife, who wants to leave him, he beats and rapes her. At least, that’s what Helgeland’s implying by the off-screen abuse. Reg brings those around him down, too, and she eventually kills herself. The first two acts work quite well, showing the brothers rise to the top and the growing division between them, but then what?
The problem for me is really the third act. Ronnie and Reg both manage to commit separate murders in front of lots of witnesses and so eventually end up, respectively, going to a mental hospital (for life) and prison (until eight weeks before his death). Reg’s wife kills herself, and the two people who really deserve some credit for destroying them, Scotland Yard Det. Nipper Read (Christopher Eccleston), and a barmaid with no dialogue that I can remember who was willing to testify in court against Ronnie – are afterthoughts. Certainly, there’s no happy ending for the Krays, they spent decades in jail and died there. It’s not like Goodfellas where anyone we’re sympathetic to (Henry Hill) gets out and the real goons (Jimmy, Paulie, Tommy) end up dead or in jail. Legend just peters out.
What’s the point of Legend? Idk. London was certainly better off without the Krays. Helgeland gives Reg and Nipper a scene where Reg lays into Nipper Read as a class traitor of sorts for leaving the East End and returning as a detective who arrests “his own.” As opposed to the Krays, I guess, who murder and bleed their own? We don’t need to take Reg too seriously on that. He likes deluding himself into thinking he’s not really a gangster. Reggie loves that he’s a hood, as out about that as he is about being gay.
But, Helgeland is really only interested in depicting how the Krays destroy each other, at which he totally succeeds to a point. But after that, Helgeland doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the Kray Era. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it wasn’t a bad thing that the Krays blew up their business and weren’t able to front Meyer Lansky and the American mob’s entrée into England. Neither Kray was wronged by life, they’re not anti-heroes with Don Corleone self-pity excuses for what they’re doing. They’re shits. And dumb ones. If Nipper Read and the barmaid were given more voice, you might have some thread in the film where East Enders finally had enough and stood up to them, because that’s what happened – a cop found a Brit willing to speak up after they threatened her kids if she didn’t keep quiet. Instead, we get an ending that just sort of lists and sinks. Too bad, because the first two acts and the beautiful palette of emotions that Hardy finds in these two goons are impressive. So, as far as the Krays on screen go … after two feature films, and many documentaries, I give it up to Python as the best depiction of the boys yet.