Legend

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Director Brian Helgeland’s Legend presents a sweeping and entertaining if mostly frivolous recreation of the Kray brothers’ reign of terror on the streets of London in the 60’s. We see the twins, both portrayed by Tom Hardy – in what is a remarkable pair of performances – as possessing a number of contradictory aspects though the overall effect is distancing, not to mention misleading in attempting to roughly humanise men whose criminal endeavours were unconscionably marked by ruthlessness and brutality.

Hardy is the film’s obvious trump card; through it all, he brings an astonishing level of commitment to rendering the brothers with detail that Helgeland’s screenplay, superficially, doesn’t come close to providing. So much of what Hardy brings to these roles won’t be found on the page: the fluid, unpredictable demeanour of the Krays, their physical traits, their inflections of speech. Whilst expanding their influence on the city’s criminal underbelly, Reggie, the brainier of the pair and a ladies man, attempts to win the heart of the winsome Frances (Emily Browning), the younger sister of one of his henchmen. Ronnie on the other hand is openly gay and prone to rashness in his decision making, especially when his sibling isn’t around to keep him centred.

Helgeland has a less spotty record as a screenwriter than as, more recently, a director. His adaptations of heavyweight crime novels L.A. Confidential (1997) and Mystic River (2003) were first rate. But, behind the camera, his Point Blank (1967) remake and directorial debut Payback (1999) proved to be a botch job, whilst the over-the-top, speciously anachronistic A Knight’s Tale (2001) was close to unwatchable. On a positive note, Legend is eminently watchable right from the start even if it’s hard to take seriously. It seems to be have been deliberately crafted to fill some uncomfortable middle ground – neither a gritty, detailed biopic, hard-nosed drama, nor excessive black comedy but rather sitting somewhere uncomfortably in between.

All three aspects are served, though the comedic bent is the far more pervasive. This fact tends to cheapen a film that’s predominantly stripped of meaning without any strict adherence to a framework of intricately detailed facts. A succession of clichéd, generally awful songs from the era also kills the film’s more serious intents. Helgeland has never been a fan of subtlety and rather than sparingly use source music for genuine impact, the drenching effect only dilutes and compromises the excellent score by Carter Burwell.

In what marks a new adult dimension to her career, Browning is luminous as the fatefully betrothed Frances, whilst a strong supporting cast provide the background ensemble with all the necessary muscle, vacuity and believable accents. Yet they’re all subservient to Hardy, naturally enough, an actor whose range knows no bounds whether playing broadly identifiable, homegrown British characters like the Krays or slipping effortlessly into American roles. It’s a shame then that, despite its entertainment value, there hasn’t been a better attempt by Helgeland to provide real insight or psychological depth to his regurgitation of this infamous duo. Thus, Legend (2015), with its frustratingly conflicting tones, is unlikely to be remembered for much else other than as a future reference for Hardy completists.

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Black Mass

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It’s been a long time since Johnny Depp has contributed much of anything to cinema. From that cartoonish, painfully overdrawn, creative trainwreck of a franchise known as Pirates of the Caribbean to his lifeless, near zombie-esque performances in awful films like The Tourist (2010), Alice in Wonderland (2011), Dark Shadows (2012) and Transcendence (2014), to his utterly embarrassing incognito contribution to Kevin Smith’s ultimately dire Tusk (2014), Depp has been floundering for years, tearing strips off his credibility with every fresh indignity. Only Bruce Robinson’s enjoyable Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary (2011) revealed a glimmer of the actor’s earlier predilection for more interesting, smaller roles.

Something’s different this around though. Depp has finally been paired up with a strong, up and coming director. Scott Cooper coaxed an Oscar-winning turn out of Jeff Bridges for his wonderful debut Crazy Heart (2009) before heading into much darker terrain with his bleak but brilliant, little-seen second feature Out of the Furnace (2013). This exploration of dubious moral boundaries continues with Black Mass (2015), a look at the true crime misadventures of 70’s and 80’s Boston informant James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, played with astonishing veracity by Depp. Bulger was an ugly, venomous creature who used his school chum and senior FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to wrangle a deal that saw him supposedly drip-feeding the agency with intelligence incriminating the city’s ruling mafia family. Meanwhile he continued to rule the streets as he saw fit, untouched for years by the authorities, as a racketeer, extortionist and vengeful murderer who cleared the path ahead with bullets and brawn.

As with any filmic transcription of real events, some creative departures from the truth are to be expected. And where adherence to logic might be more appreciated and applauded for its novelty factor, the need to charge the narrative with momentum as the years unwind becomes equally important. Bulger’s reign is mostly viewed from internal sources, with the broader focus lacking depth. But this disparity in perspective doesn’t hurt the overall effect too much. Cooper’s direction is polished and combined with the force of Bulger, the film is never less than magnetic. There are partially successful attempts to integrate human dimensions into this portrait of Bulger but even when the mother of his child expresses outrage at the time of the dire diagnosis of their boy’s condition, a fleeting glimpse of Bulger’s softer side is quickly erased by a frightening directive.

Set on drab, grey, ever sunless Boston streets, Black Mass manages to create a genuine pall of unease. The violence is coldly articulated and unsettling, the performances authentically grounded in the believably created milieu of Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk’s screenplay. Depp inhabits Bulger with a fearsome edge. He may be layered beneath impressive make-up effects but the transformation is much more than skin deep. He exudes menace and authority in potent doses; we’re never left in any doubt that Bulger is a man few would dare to cross, even Connolly, whose juggling of his official duties and off-the-record scheming to keep things sweet with his friend produces an uncomfortable degree of sycophantic pandering. Overall, the film enhances Cooper’s growing reputation and is a reminder of the seemingly waning or misplaced transformative abilities of Depp, an actor whose performances of recent times have too often disappeared behind a veil of parody and led, not unjustly, to ridicule.