Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy are the reasons to see “Legend,” a gangster flick in which he does double duty as Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the British gangster twins who had a moment in the 1960s. Outside Britain, the Krays are probably now known less for their actual exploits than for their representations, either as vaguely obscured supporting attractions (in Mike Hodges’s dazzling 1971 genre-defining “Get Carter,” starring Michael Caine) or as the main event (notably, the 1990 biopic “The Krays,” with Gary and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet fame). The Krays weren’t especially memorable as criminals, but they knew how to strut and swing through 1960s London.
Frances serves as the movie’s guide and rather less convincingly as its moral compass. A sparrow who flutters into a lion’s mouth when she hooks up with Reggie, she pulls the movie in one direction (bad, Krays, bad), even as they and the mighty Mr. Hardy effortlessly yank it back. They may have been terrible, these two, but from the evidence of the movie, they were fairly amusing company, intentionally or not. That, at least, is how Mr. Helgeland plays it, dropping in lightly funny exchanges — as when Ronnie bluntly announces his homosexuality to a startled American gangster — with the Krays’ dirtier dealings. Yet while those get filthy and sometimes sanguineous, it’s notable that the scariest Kray is their mother (a terrific Jane Wood, sliding in and out of the movie like a shiv).
More Mama Kray might have added additional layers to this dual portrait, but Mr. Helgeland has gone for broad, not profound. That shifts the burden to Mr. Hardy, who lightly hoists it with grimaces, body language, an apparent prosthetic and lots of swirling cigar and cigarette smoke. Mr. Hardy is one of those actors who periodically like to pull a Lon Chaney(silent cinema’s man of a thousand faces) by hiding in plain sight. He’s done bald and bulky, blond and sleek; more perversely, he has masked his face with beard fuzz and appliances. Here, he plays a long game of performance peekaboo, parading his good looks around as Reggie, and hiding them as Ronnie. As a character study, it proves about as deep as Goofus and Gallant in the British underworld, but it’s also consistently fun to watch.
In the end, the Krays’ most lasting contribution may have been cinematic. Duncan Campbell, writing in The Guardian, has zeroed in on a 1965 David Bailey photo of the Krays as a defining moment for the twins and their cultural impact. “The portrait became gangland’s Mona Lisa — copied, pirated and imitated, it was central to their image and their brand,” he writes. Soon afterward, Mr. Bailey released a photo collection that featured the Krays as well as a third brother, Charlie, alongside boldface names like Mick Jagger and Jean Shrimpton. The Krays were cool only by proxy, but they became celebrities of a kind, and their look filtered into the gangster film iconography, inspiring the likes of Guy Ritchie. Every time you see another stupid thug playing the peacock, blame them.
“Legend” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Gun and knife violence. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes.