In March, when it was announced that Leonardo DiCaprio won the Best Actor Award for his performance in “The Revenant,” it seemed only fitting. While “The Revenant” might not have been DiCaprio’s best acting job – I’m still a fan of what he did as a 19-year-old in the 1993 film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” – it was a just reward for all he went through while making Alejandro González Iñárritu’s demanding Best Picture winner.
Actually, though, I think DiCaprio pulled off only the movie’s second-best performance. I think the best acting in “The Revenant” was done by British actor Tom Hardy, who portrayed the movie’s antagonist, John Fitzgerald.
You’ve likely heard of Hardy. He was the troubled brother opposite Joel Edgerton in 2011’s “Warrior.” Behind a virtual mountain of makeup, he was the villain Bane in 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” He appeared in any number of other films, from “Black Hawk Down” to “Star Trek: Nemesis,” “Inception” to “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
But if you want to see what Hardy is really capable of, you need to see the 2008 film “Bronson” and the 2015 film “Legend,” both now available in a variety of home-viewing formats.
In these films, Hardy doesn’t just act. He doesn’t just become a screen character. He embodies the real-life personalities he is attempting to portray and ends up achieving something that warrants such adjectives as dynamic and fearless and even unforgettable.
“Bronson,” directed by the Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn, tells the based-in-fact story of the man described as “the most violent prisoner in Britain.” And Hardy, beefed up, head shaved and equipped with a mustache that would make Harry Reems blush, imbues him with the kind of vigor that seems to jump off the screen.
Skip forward seven years, and now – in “Legend” – Hardy is playing the notorious Kray brothers, Reggie and Ronnie, those London mobsters of the 1950s and ’60s who previously were portrayed by the Kemp brothers, Gary and Martin, in the 1990 biopic “The Krays.” Director Peter Medek’s conceit was to use the twin Kemps to play the twin Krays.
The conceit of director Brian Helgeland in “Legend” is to use Hardy to play both Krays: the violent, more sensible Reggie AND the violent, sociopathically limited Ronnie. And Hardy doesn’t disappoint.
Appearing in virtually every scene, Hardy manages to imbue each Kray with a distinct personality. Told mostly through the eyes of the woman who would become Reggie’s first wife, which allows Helgeland to avoid the standard all-inclusive biopic storytelling style, we watch as the brothers devour post-war London with a ferociousness that impresses even New York Italian mobsters (cameo by Chazz Palminteri).
Besides Palminteri, Hardy is joined by the likes of former “Doctor Who” Christopher Eccelston, veteran actor David Thewlis and the lesser-known Australian actress Emily Browning. But “Legend,” in the end, belongs to Hardy, who chews up every scene he’s in with a singular sense of viciousness. It’s almost as if he’s the living reincarnation of the characters he is portraying.
And he does it twice over. Take that, Leo.