Legacy is at once easy yet impossible to describe. The tag line--"One man. One room. One mission."--on initial appearance reads like the simplest, lowest-common-denominator promotional copy, but it's about as dead-on a summary of writer/director/editor Thomas Ikimi's basic premise as one can devise. But for all the concrete accuracy of those six, simple words, they don't quite begin to do full justice to the uniquely harrowing experience of the film as it plays out--nor the craft and precision Ikimi exhibits in bringing his uncompromising vision to the screen.
It is to the film's benefit that it defies detailed description, for the sense of ominous uncertainty and gradually unfolding discovery more closely places the viewer in the position of that "one man" in that "one room," Malcolm Gray (Idris Elba). A soldier in a Black Ops squad, he holes up in a run-down Brooklyn hotel room to try to make sense of a recent, disastrous operation that has left him battered and scarred--in ways far beyond the literal, and, as becomes apparent, for long before that fateful mission. The film opens with a taste of those events that day in Eastern Europe, and this pre-title sequence sets the stage for what follows in the next 90 minutes--not just in terms of plot and general tone but also the storytelling. As a tense stand-off erupts into violence, Ikimi gets right what so many filmmakers do not in their depictions of visceral chaos: while there are the appropriately disorienting quick edits and such, the stylish technique does not come at the expense of general coherence.
That carries over to the entirety of Legacy, as Ikimi efficiently balances and intertwines style and content to the degree that they are one and the same, hence making an inherently and willfully enigmatic scenario accessible and engrossing. The striking main titles cleverly integrate the standard credits into newspaper headlines and articles that quickly, clearly give the back story on the political rise of Malcolm's brother, Senator Darnell Gray (Eamonn Walker), not to mention cannily introduce the newspaper clippings that become omnipresent in the rest of the film. Once the action becomes almost completely confined to that hotel room and the character of Malcolm, necessary exposition and key information are dispensed in similarly layered fashion: flashbacks, hazy visions, video diaries, television interviews, glimpses of images, and dialogue both spoken and overlaid weave together to form Malcolm's psychological puzzlebox of a present. As Malcolm's mental state ironically becomes more confused in his ongoing quest for clarity, also ironic is how Ikimi's virtuoso command over his material grows clearer and all the more impressive. For what is largely a single set/location piece, he keeps consistently keeps things visually interesting from an aesthetic standpoint with his lighting, color, and shot choices, but beyond merely looking good they serve to build the claustrophobic tension and gradually tighten the screws as Malcolm descends deeper into darkness and delusion.
Even with Ikimi's cinematic skill, though, such careful construction would be a cerebral but cold exercise were it not for the presence of Elba. Though the role of Malcolm was not expressly written for him, it's unthinkable to have any one else in the part, for it is so perfectly suited to his strengths and considerable range. His intimidating physicality not only ideally fits the soldier profile but always makes the threat of violence, either to others or himself, loom large. But belying his imposing presence is the very raw, very real vulnerability Elba is so vividly able to convey with just his eyes and face. If his charisma is what initially grips, it is the naked emotional fearlessness of Elba's performance that keeps one riveted, making a very internal struggle externally intimate for the audience as one can not only see but feel the pain, grief, and fear behind Malcolm's outward rage and enveloping madness. Any portrayal of mental collapse precariously tempts alienating the audience, but Elba is able to maintain a relatable point of connection beneath the uncertainty of the surface.
That sense of connection is invaluable, for one underwritten aspect of the script is that there's not a huge sense of the person Malcolm was before that last mission or even before he first joined the Black Ops squad. There is some suggestion, in quieter moments with his squad and particularly in scenes with lost love Valentina (Monique Gabriela Curnen), but not a whole lot to go on. However, such vagueness ultimately helps the film and supports the central, title theme of legacies: the exalted one that Darnell is trying to secure with his political maneuvers; the external "legacies" left by actions of the past; "legacies" in the mind as in memories of said actions, relationships, feelings. Malcolm, much like the audience, is continually unsure of who or what he truly is; is he the person that existed before he became the ruthless "righteous" killer as required by his orders, or was the murderous monster in fact a manifestation his true self? In sorting through and trying to make "sense" the "legacies" of those events, relationships, and feelings, the true mission proves not to be uncovering the reasons behind and those responsible for bringing him to his current place, but for Malcolm to let go and finally take a stand and shape for himself what will be his ultimate legacy.
Similarly, it's up to the viewer to decide the legacy that one takes from viewing the film. Unlike in too many films that blur the lines of reality, Ikimi plays fair, inviting (or, perhaps more accurately, challenging) the audience to be an active participant rather than a passive observer by clearly laying out a number of clues and answers for one to figure out if not the whole mystery, then to at least assemble some of the pieces. But for all of Ikimi's unconventional, boundary-breaking ideas and audacity in presentation, Legacy ultimately works in fairly simple and most traditional terms: it's a complex character study brought to absorbing, haunting life through the fierce commitment of its acting and filmmaking.