Even a terrible actor could win friends and influence moviegoers in the role of Bob, a sweetie-pie Brooklyn bartender who saves an injured pit bull puppy from a garbage can in the opening minutes of The Drop, expanded by screenwriter Dennis Lehane from his own short story, Animal Rescue.
For the record, Tom Hardy is not a terrible actor. He’s an excellent one. In The Drop, Hardy, brandishing (or, rather, Brando-ishing) an outer-borough dialect and mumble, is surrounded by terrific support in Belgian director Michael R. Roskam’s uneven but pungent English-language debut. Notably, the late James Gandolfini plays Marv, Bob’s cousin and employer, the bearlike manager of the tavern that bears his name, and it’s both lovely and extraordinarily bittersweet to see Gandolfini one last time, his eyes alive with his character’s demons.
As a performance vehicle The Drop does the job. As a story, and an uncertainly padded script, the movie lurches and lets us get out ahead of its developments. Previous Lehane screen adaptations, ranging from Mystic River to Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island, have contended with compressing a novel into manageable movie material. With The Drop it’s a stab in the other direction, with Lehane struggling to transform a 7,650-word short story into a satisfying two-hour experience.
The tavern called Cousin Marv’s is an occasional “drop bar,” in underworld parlance. Unmarked envelopes stashed with ill-gotten cash make their way into Marv’s safe, so that the Chechen gangsters who own the tavern and, apparently, most of Brooklyn can keep their wheels nice and greasy. A couple of lowlifes in masks hold up Marv’s place at gunpoint and make off with five grand. The Chechens want it back; Marv and Bob have to get it.
Also there’s the puppy, whose previous owner is the neighborhood sociopath (though he has company) played by Matthias Schoenaerts. (The actor starred in director Roskam’s previous feature, Bullhead, another study in macho sensitivity at war with macho animal rage.) Named Rocco by new owner Bob, the dog is recovered early on from the garbage can owned by wary Nadia (Noomi Rapace, of the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). This charismatic loner, whose narrative existence is to provide a bookend for charismatic loner Bob, comes with a shady past. In Lehane World the sins of yesterday smear the skies of today.
Hardy is superb as a soulful man of few words, an endearing early-Stallone bashfulness and, when violence is called for, the wrath of a working-class Khan. I can’t be the only film lover who’s grown weary of a particular sentimental cliché: the saintly avenging angel, designed for audience adoration one minute and an outlet for the audience’s bloodthirsty instincts the next. With actors as interesting as Hardy, Gandolfini and Rapace, at least the clichés in The Drop have a fighting chance of holding your attention alongside the odd severed limb.
The Drop (R): ★★★✩✩