Crime drama “The Drop” has an obvious hook. It features James Gandolfini’s final film performance.
The late star of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” however, is not the movie’s leading man. Instead, Gandolfini memorably plays a supporting role as Cousin Marv, the scheming manager of a Brooklyn bar.
The dark cynicism in Marv serves as further confirmation of Gandolfini’s range. In the actor’s second-to-last film, “Enough Said,” he starred opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus as 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 a trash can while he’s walking home.
British actor Tom Hardy (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) stars as Bob, a quiet, go-along-with-the-program kind of guy who’s apparently not too bright. He lifts the trash can lid and finds a bloody puppy.
Noomi Rapace (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) plays the woman whose trash can became the puppy’s dumping ground. Nadia, an immigrant with an Eastern European accent, agrees to keep the wounded dog temporarily. But she probably knows more about why a pit bull was left for dead 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,” enters a bleak, film noir realm of crime and punishment.
Despite all the snooping that a detective played by John Ortiz does around Marv and Bob, it’s the criminals who do the punishing in “The Drop.” The movie contains a few squirm-inducing scenes of brutal retribution.
Multiple planes of plot run through Lehane’s screenplay. These include the gradually strained relationship between Bob and Marv; growing connection between Bob and Nadia; and the Chechen mobsters, the principal of which is played by Michael Aronov (TV’s “The Americans”) with a toxic blend of princely arrogance and friendly persuasion.
Despite the Chechens’ large numbers and determination, lone predator Eric Deeds may be Bob’s most deadly threat. Deeds happens to be the original owner of the abused puppy. Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, the star of Roskam’s Oscar-nominated “Bullhead,” lurks in corners before making his 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 as Deeds, in a softly obsessive way, makes the character a low-key terrorist.
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 merely existing to living.
The trajectory for Gandolfini’s Marv takes a different course. Marv sees no need for redemption and Gandolfini seeks no light in the character’s stained soul.
Roskam, making his American film debut, shows that he’s a skilled steward of actors, characters as well as themes that he clearly has a knack for exploiting. That and the film’s uniformly fine performances conspire to make “The Drop” an exceptional crime drama.
MOVIE: The Drop
REVIEWER’S RATING: 3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars
STARRING: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini
DIRECTOR: Michaël R. Roskam
NOW SHOWING: At AMC Mall of La. 15, Cinemark Perkins Rowe and XD and The Grand 14 (Lafayette)
RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 46 mins.
MPAA RATING: R