In the new version of the Kray twins story, the notorious gangsters spring to life fully formed. They're not yet the undisputed rulers of London, but they're plainly in the ascendancy, already rubbing out rivals and spurning the overtures of blokes from Las Vegas whose names end in vowels.

Thus we are mercifully spared the childhood scenes of the boilerplate biopic. The problem is that the twins are never explained: their psychopathically fearless brutality; their almost endearing indifference to authority, even when they are arrested and imprisoned; their passionate lifelong dedication to nurturing the near-mythical status referred to in the film's title; all these seem like accoutrements rather than the essence of character.

Tom Hardy stars in the movie Legend.
Tom Hardy stars in the movie Legend.

To be fair to writer-director Helgeland, the omission is doubtless deliberate. He would have been delighted to hear, as I did, someone say as they left the preview screening, "I've never found violence so enjoyable", because he's made something like a live-action cartoon (in an East End visualised by Disneyland), albeit one in which people who've been stomped don't shake themselves and pop back to life.

The film positively exults in its brutality, which is perhaps unsurprising considering its source material: John Pearson's tellingly-titled 1995 The Profession of Violence reads like a rather distasteful hagiography dressed up in the kind of psychoanalysis you buy in the $2 shop. You'll need to look elsewhere for any sense of what made these boys tick, perhaps to Peter Medak's floridly Freudian 1990 film The Krays, with Spandau Ballet's Kemp twins, Gary and Martin.

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Legend's selling point is, of course, the dual main-role performances by the protean Hardy, and they are undeniably extraordinary. He suffuses the bipolar Ronnie's simmering menace with a trembling anxiety - the man constantly looks as though he's about to burst into tears - and give us hints of the sadness underlying Reggie's cocky swagger.

Both performances correlate perfectly with the famous David Bailey photograph, though one is arguably over the top: more than it should be, this is a film about Reggie trying to control Ronnie.

Emily Browning and Tom Hardy in movie Legend.
Emily Browning and Tom Hardy in movie Legend.

In any case, the star turns are the jewels in the crown of a rather ordinary film. Helgeland, who is best known as a writer (the joint Oscar winner for LA Confidential; Mystic River) makes some very odd decisions.

The worst is giving the voiceover narration (a storyteller's admission of failure, anyway) to Reggie's underwritten teenage girlfriend Frances (Browning), who was necessarily absent from key moments and has little reason to like the twins. Lesser characters are caricatures - Eccleston as a dogged detective is particularly ill-used - and the film as a whole is all over the place, tonally and narratively. It's as if no one's sure whether it's a comedy, farce or tragedy.

What is certain, is that it's a nasty, thuggish portrait of nasty thugs. The Krays would have loved it, but for both interest and excitement, Locke, in which Hardy sat and talked on the phone in a car, beats it hands down.


Legend
Cast: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Colin Morgan
Director: Brian Helgeland
Running Time: 131 mins
Rating: R18 (graphic violence, offensive language)
Verdict: Much less than the sum of its two main parts.