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Tom Hardy plays the roles of Ronald and Reggie Kray in "Legend." (Photo courtesy Universal Pictures/TNS)

Reggie and Ronnie Kray (both played by Tom Hardy) are identical twins who share a knack for crime. Robbery, arson, murder — if it’s illegal, it’s within their bailiwick. And in 1960s London, they rise to the status of celebrities.

The charismatic Reggie has no trouble attracting the attention of a young woman named Frances (Emily Browning) who at first is oblivious to the dangers of spending time with a gangster. Their romance is all the more poignant for the fact that Reggie would like to be the kind of guy who deserves her love, but can’t help being an insensitive thug.

The bespectacled Ronnie is nowhere near as charismatic. Instead, he’s apt to explode into violence at the slightest provocation. That causes problems for Reggie, who seems much more focused on keeping up appearances, particularly as it pertains to their nightclub business.

Still, there’s one thing the brothers can agree on: When competition threatens their criminal empire, there’s nothing like busting heads and, if necessary, racking up bodies to get things back on track.

The fact-based “Legend” is best appreciated as a showcase for Hardy, who brings both Krays to vibrant life.

Unfortunately, the movie otherwise lacks much of a reason to exist — especially because roughly the same ground was covered, and to better effect, in the 1990 biopic “The Krays.”

Working from his own screenplay, director Brian Helgeland clearly has a feel for the Krays’ criminal milieu, but it’s not long before repetition sets in. There’s only so much brutality that even the most bloodthirsty audience can tolerate.

But Hardy, who starred as the title character in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” can’t be faulted. He transforms what might have been merely a gimmick — one actor playing two roles — into a fascinating comment on acting itself.

And that almost rescues “Legend” from being just another exercise in mayhem.

What “Legend” Two and a half stars out of four Run time 2:11 Rating R Content Violence, language, sexual and drug material

Calvin Wilson is theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.