For its first fifteen minutes, The Drop looks, sounds, and feels like a retread of every standard issue NYC-based crime thriller: it’s dourly drawn, frank in tone, and peppered with prototypically New Yawk accents. But all of the film’s hoary cliches are backed up by pedigree, which just goes to show how valuable pedigree can be in well-worn territory. It’s directed by Michaël R. Roskam, the Belgian filmmaker responsible for 2011’s excellent Bullhead. It’s written by Boston-based novelist, Dennis Lehane, a veteran peddler of gritty street-level morality tales. And it stars Tom Hardy, coming off an impressive performance in April’s Locke.
It also happens to feature the final performance of the late James Gandolfini, but frankly, Gandolfini’s presence in the film may be its least remarkable quality. Not that anybody should dismiss Tony Soprano’s last bow, mind, but he is here, in essence, to play James Gandolfini. If The Drop is founded on genre staples, its most rote aspect is his dialogue, which simply recycles his Sopranos tough guy bravado. He makes it work, as he did throughout his career, but the movie doesn’t bother reaching far to sculpt his character.
Would his rumblings sound any better coming from someone else? Probably not. That’s Gandolfini’s gift: he had a schtick, but it never felt like schtick. In The Drop, that schtick layers his character, Marv, with a deep-rooted melancholy that’s compelling. Marv used to be his own man, a bar owner with a reputation to be feared in his Brooklyn neighborhood. But that’s all past tense. In the present, he owns the bar in name only following a buyout with local Chechen heavies, who now use the establishment as a “drop bar” for filtering illicit funds. Once the master of his destiny, now a cog in the mob machine of a culture he doesn’t seem to understand. We feel bad for Marv in spite of his brute ignorance. Nonetheless, he’s not the star. He’s almost the backdrop.
No, The Drop’s true person of interest is Hardy, playing Marv’s sadsack cousin and business partner, Bob. The film revolves around a simple matter of robbery, committed late one night by a couple of masked punks; bereft of their nightly score, Marv and Bob have to come up with the purloined dough to mollify their boss (Michael Aronov, most recently seen playing Anton Baklanov in The Americans). We don’t need the promise of brutal violence to know that the Chechen coterie is bad news, but we get it, and so Marv and Bob find their work cut out for them.
The plot gets more complicated from there, and speaking more of it might leech the film of its twistier pleasures. As the pair tracks down the cash (and the thieves), Bob begins forming tentative bonds with a waitress named Nadia (Noomi Rapace, underused but on point) and with a pitbull puppy he finds beaten and bloodied in her dumpster. (The film is adapted from one of Lehane’s short stories, titled “Animal Rescue.” You do the math.) As if Bob didn’t have enough on his plate to begin with, their connection draws the attention of Eric (Matthias Shoenaerts, Roskam’s Bullhead accomplice), Nadia’s super creepy ex and the dog’s former owner.
What any of these things have to do with the overarching narrative remain more or less elusive even when the credits begin rolling; they collide more than they actually inform one another, really, but that’s just fine. Roskam ties them together cleanly even if their intersection doesn’t add up to much more than coincidence. Sometimes you need coincidence for the sake of a good thrill, and The Drop has thrills to spare.
Hardy spends most of his time making Bob into a genial, mumbling dolt; he’s simple, he’s obedient, but he’s also earnest and, in his fashion, kind of sweet. The film takes the character on a serious journey, leading into a sharply constructed climax that changes our appreciation for everything preceding it. Credit goes to Hardy for his stellar performance—2014 seems to be his year to shine, at least as far as turning out precise portraits of men driven by responsibility and loyalty. (His work here strikes a vast contrast to his work in Locke, but if the characters differ dramatically, their spirits are nearly identical.)
Hardy is the film’s defining element, but he isn’t the only one worth seeing the film for. Roskam directs The Drop to handsome effect, throwing a handful of dazzling compositions in among shots that get the job done; meanwhile, Gandolfini does what Gandolfini does, though this isn’t quite the same farewell as last year’s Enough Said. Taken together, they’re enough to get there, pushing the film well past the originality hump and making it well worth the price of admission. Sometimes a movie doesn’t need to be “fresh” to justify watching. Sometimes it just needs to be good.
Director: Michaël R. Roskam
Writer: Dennis Lehane
Starring: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts
Release Date: Sept. 12, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and TV on the web since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter.