The Drop Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace. Directed by Michaël R. Roskam. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Originally titled Animal Rescue, after the short story from which it was adapted/expanded, The Drop features three performances that are liable to inspire tender feelings from most viewers. One is an accident of history—this is the final film that James Gandolfini shot before he unexpectedly died of a heart attack in the summer of 2013. Another is pure awww, as the film’s plot involves an adorable pit bull puppy, which spends a great deal of time onscreen breaking hearts with its floppy ears and beseeching eyes. What’s surprising is that Tom Hardy, an actor best known for playing brutal characters in such films as Bronson, Lawless and The Dark Knight Rises (in which he was barely even human as Bane), seems every bit as cute and vulnerable as his deceased and canine co-stars. It’s a remarkably cagey piece of acting, upon which The Drop ultimately depends for its unexpected source of power, and confirms that Hardy is his generation’s equivalent of Gary Oldman—a chameleon whose transformations never seem skin-deep.
It takes a long time to get a fix on Bob Saginowski, the soft-spoken Brooklyn bartender Hardy plays in The Drop, and that’s very much by design. Bob works at Cousin Marv’s bar, which was once owned by his actual cousin, Marv (Gandolfini), but was taken over by Chechen gangsters almost a decade ago; they let Marv run the place, as a figurehead, but use the bar, in common with many others they own, as a floating repository for huge sums of cash waiting to be laundered. Early in the movie, two masked hoods rob Cousin Marv’s, and while they only get away with a small amount of money—it wasn’t drop night at that particular bar—the Chechens still expect to be reimbursed, pronto. Around the same time, Bob happens to overhear a puppy that had been cruelly thrown into a trash can, and he agrees to take care of it, provided he gets some help from Nadia (Noomi Rapace), the trash can’s owner. It soon becomes clear that little Rocco, as they decide to call the dog, previously belonged to a scary-looking guy named Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts, the star of director Michaël R. Roskam’s previous film, Bullhead), and one could be forgiven for guessing that Eric has some connection with Nadia, the robbery at Cousin Marv’s, or perhaps even both.
Every element of The Drop is solid, and while screenwriter Dennis Lehane, whose novels provided the basis for Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, moves the action of “Animal Rescue” from Boston to Brooklyn, he retains the vividly seedy atmosphere for which he’s renowned. It’s a joy to see Gandolfini again, too. But the movie’s secret weapon is Hardy, whose work is at once deliberately deceptive and uncommonly open-hearted. To say much more than that would be to spoil one of the movie’s principal pleasures, but if you aren’t yet conversant with one of the greatest actors currently working, this would be a fine opportunity to correct that error.