Crime drama “The Drop” has an obvious hook. It features James Gandolfini’s final film performance.
The late star of “The Sopranos,” however, is not the movie’s leading man. Instead, Gandolfini memorably plays supporting character Cousin Marv, the scheming manager of a Brooklyn bar.
The darkness in Marv serves as further confirmation of Gandolfini’s range. In his second-to-last film, “Enough Said,” he starred opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus, playing a big, sweet puppy-bear of a guy.
“The Drop” hinges in large part on a real puppy. Bob Saginowski, a bartender who works for Marv, hears a pit bull whimpering from the inside of trashcan while he’s walking home.
British actor Tom Hardy (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) plays protagonist Bob, a go-along-with-the program kind of guy who’s both quiet and, by all indications, not too bright. He lifts the trashcan lid and finds a bloody puppy.
Noomi Rapace (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) plays the woman whose trashcan served as the puppy’s dumping ground. Nadia, an immigrant with an Eastern European accent, agrees to keep the wounded pup temporarily. She probably knows more about why a left-for-dead pit bull was in her trash than she lets on.
“The Drop,” directed by Belgian filmmaker Michaël R. Roskam (“Bullhead”) and adapted for the screen by Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”) from his short story, “Animal Rescue,” occupies a film noir realm of crime and punishment.
Despite all the snooping an NYPD detective (John Ortiz) does around Marv and Bob, it’s the criminals who do the punishing in “The Drop.” The movie contains some brutal scenes of retribution.
Multiple planes of plot run through Lehane’s screenplay. These include Bob and Marv’s gradually strained relationship, growing affection between Bob and Nadia, and Chechen mobsters, the principal of whom is played by Michael Aronov (TV’s “The Americans”) with a toxic blend of princely arrogance and friendly persuasion.
Despite the Chechens’ numbers and cash-fueled determination, lone predator Eric Deeds may be Bob’s biggest threat. Deeds is the original owner of the puppy Bob rescued. Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, the star of Roskam’s Oscar-nominated “Bullhead,” lurks in corners as Deeds prior to making a daylight appearance at Bob’s door.
“You got my dog,” Deeds says.
“No,” Bob replies. “It’s my dog. You beat him.”
Nadia, speaking from experience, tells Bob, “he’s not just going to go away.” Schoenaerts, in his soft, obsessive way, makes Deeds the embodiment of low-key terrorism.
Hardy’s performance is another of the film’s understated marvels. His soft-spoken Bob also evolves. The character, maybe spurred by his adoption of the puppy he names Rocco, moves from existing to living.
The path Gandolfini’s Marv pursues is much less hopeful. Marv sees no need for redemption and a grim, committed Gandolfini seeks no light in his character’s stained soul.
Roskam, making his American film debut, shows that he’s a skilled steward of actors, their characters as well as shadow-side themes. That and the film’s uniformly fine performances conspire to make “The Drop” exceptional crime drama.
(3 and a half stars)
STARRING: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini
DIRECTOR: Michaël R. Roskam
NOW SHOWING: The Theaters at Canal Place and AMC Elmwood Palace 20
RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 46 mins.
MPAA RATING: R for some strong violence and pervasive language.
Excellent (4 stars), Good (3 stars), Fair (2 stars), Poor (1 star)