‘The Drop’: Gritty crime tale

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Most classic crime dramas focus on characters at the apex of sprawling empires of illegal activity. “The Godfather” trilogy, both versions of “Scarface,” and “Little Caesar” epitomize this phenomenon. By contrast, “The Drop” involves people, who are low-level underlings in the mob’s machinations.

Bob Saginowksy (Tom Hardy) is a somewhat slow-witted, socially maladroit bartender in a Brooklyn taproom. The blue collar bar is run by his cousin, Marv (James Gandolfini).

Bob still lives alone in the home where he grew up. He inherited it from his deceased parents. It is well-maintained, but the anachronistic furnishings suggest that they haven’t been updated for decades. It looks like the home of an elderly couple. There is nothing to suggest that a relatively young man dwells in the house.

Marv once owned the bar, but has been pressured out by Chechen gangsters, who have purchased the business. He operates it for them and the bar still bears the name, Cousin Marv’s. Marv chafes at the dismissive way that he is treated by Chovka (Michael Aronov), son of the Chechen crime lord, who now owns the bar.

Marv is a hard-nosed, bottom-line driven businessman. He castigates Bob for continuing to carry Millie, a dissipated old biddy, even though her tab has reached $120. Marv demands that she pay up or be banned from drinking in the bar. Marv also criticizes Bob for buying a round for some regulars, who are marking the 10th anniversary of the mysterious disappearance of one of their friends, nicknamed Glory Days.  He was last seen at Cousin Marv’s. A local resident, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) has widely bragged that he is the one, who whacked the guy.

As Bob explains in an initial voice over, Cousin Marv’s is the periodic drop site, where illegal earnings can be temporarily stashed by Chechen gangsters. One night, the bar is robbed by two masked gunmen. Fortunately, it’s a non-drop night and only $5,000 is stolen. The Chechens insist that Marv is liable to replace the stolen money.

A savvy NYPD policeman, Detective Torres (John Ortiz), investigates the heist, which has aroused his suspicions. He wonders whether it is somehow tied into the long-ago disappearance of Glory Days. Torres happens to recognize Bob as someone, who attends mass every morning at his parish church, St. Dominic’s. He questions why Bob never takes communion.

Subsequently, Bob is walking home from work. He hears the sound of a puppy whimpering. Bob lifts the cover of a trash can and finds a battered, bleeding pit bull. A woman emerges from the house. She turns out to be Nadia (Noomi Rapace,  Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels), a skittish, world-weary young woman. Nadia explains that it’s her trash can, but not her dog.

Even though Bob has no experience with canines, Nadia convinces him to adopt the half-dead dog. Bob develops a tentative relationship with Nadia, who names the rescued pit bull, Rocco, and teaches Bob the rudiments of dog-rearing.

Enter Eric Deeds in the proverbial flesh. The man, widely regarded as a homicidal maniac, shows up at Bob’s house. Eric asserts that he owns the pit bull and demands its return. Bob protests, insisting that Eric discarded the dog and that he owns Rocco now. However, Eric waves a paper at Bob, claiming that it constitutes proof that he remains the dog’s legal owner. Bob does not succumb to Eric’s demands. Thereafter, Eric starts stalking the protagonist and issuing sadistic threats.

This is the first screenplay by Dennis Lehane, which is based on his short story, “Animal Rescue.” Previously, Lehane’s novels, “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “Shutter Island” have been adapted into well-received films. “The Drop” lacks the narrative density of the other films derived from Lehane’s writing. However, the film has Lehane’s unmistakable stamp on it. “The Drop” boasts his usual compelling characters, terse dialogue, and some surprising narrative twists. “The Drop” has a strong sense of local color. However, here it is set in the borough of Brooklyn, not Boston, which is the customary setting for Lehane’s ouevre.

This is the American debut by Belgian director, Michaël Roskam. He previously helmed “Carlo” and “Bullhead.” Roskam demonstrates a steady hand, sustaining the film’s dramatic tension and adroitly capturing the screenplay’s use of misdirection.

This photo released courtesy of Fox Searchlight shows Tom Hardy, left, as “Bob” and Noomi Rapace as “Nadia," in the film, "The Drop." (AP Photo/Copyright Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, Barry Wetcher)

This photo released courtesy of Fox Searchlight shows Tom Hardy, left, as “Bob” and Noomi Rapace as “Nadia,” in the film, “The Drop.” (AP Photo/Copyright Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, Barry Wetcher)

Hardy provides another stellar performance. His breakthrough performance was in 2008’s “Bronson.” In that crime drama, a bulked up Hardy portrayed the notorious prisoner, Michael Gordon Peterson, a strutting, larger than life character. Hardy subsequently exhibited his versatility, portraying an MI6 agent in “Tinker Tailor Soldier, Spy;” a bootlegger in “Lawless;” and Batman’s growling nemesis, Bane, in “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Earlier this year, Hardy was confronted with the daunting task of carrying the one-man film, “Locke.” The entirety of the film took place inside of a car driven by his character and all of the dialogue is delivered by the Hardy. Somehow, he made the film work, infusing every frame of the tour de force with a rivetingly self-composed assurance. In “The Drop,” Hardy portrays yet another decidedly different character. He’s a passive, unremarkable everyman, who is just trying to get by. The actor again demonstrates a facility for accents. The English born Hardy adopted a Welsh accent in “Locke.” Here, he is convincing as a Brooklyn native.

Gandolfini’s interactions with Hardy, brings two fine actors together. This is the farewell film performance by Gandolfini, best known for his role in HBO’s “Sopranos.” The late actor provides another depiction of a psychologically complex, deeply conflicted character. It makes you aware of what a compelling screen presence Gandolfini was and how much he will be missed.

Gandolfini and Hardy are both excellent, as one anticipate. The revelation here is Matthias Schoenaerts. He has a relatively circumscribed role as Eric Deeds. Initially, when he first appears onscreen, trying to recover his discarded pit bull, you might reasonably suspect that he is in a throwaway role.   After all, he is not a name actor and his role seems incidental to the plot’s trajectory. However, watch Schoenaerts closely. His performance as a twitchy killer with a dark history is memorable. Like Hardy, there is nothing in his accent that betrays the fact that he isn’t a Brooklyn native. In reality, Schoenaerts was born and raised in Belgium. Those who saw him as Marian Cotillard’s paramour in “Rust and Bone,” are already familiar with the actor’s considerable screen presence. Others are in store for a treat.

“The Drop” is an engaging crime tale, distinguished by its gritty screenplay and fine performances.

*** R (for some strong violence and pervasive language) 106 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.



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