The Drop
Directed by Michaël R. Roskam  
Starring: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace
Rated R for some strong violence and pervasive language
1 hr. 46 min.

I know what you thought when you saw the ads for this film. Another New York gangster flick with Gandolfini reprising his Tony Soprano role, right? Not exactly. Yes, it’s a gangster film and yes, Gandolfini is connected to the mob, but in this case, he’s the low man on the mobster food chain and the real star in this film is Tom Hardy.

Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam plays his film like a card shark slinging aces on the table; and like a good card man, Roskam leads you to expect one thing while he does something different. It’s a real sleight of hand that doesn’t tip itself until the last half hour; and when the trick is finally revealed, it’s genuinely surprising.

Cousin Marv’s, owned and operated by a violent Chechen gang, is both a bar and a drop site for mob money in the heart of grimy Brooklyn. Marv (James Gandolfini) himself has been ousted as owner of his own bar and forced to stay on as the Chechens’ bookkeeper. Marv pulls off a not-so-clever heist of his employer’s drop money. Unfortunately, when the job is bungled and one of his burglars is brutally murdered, Marv must dodge both the Chechens and the police.

Marv’s cousin Bob (Tom Hardy) is his barkeep and right-hand man, who tries to keep the lid on Marv’s temper and occasionally cleans up his messes. One night while walking home from work, Bob hears whining inside a garbage can in front of a house and discovers that someone has cruelly discarded a pit bull puppy.

When Nadia (Noomi Rapace), the owner of the house, comes out and confronts him, Bob struggles to explain himself and begs for her help. As a vet tech, she takes them in, administers first aid to the dog, and begins to teach a very reluctant Bob how to take care of a puppy. In doing so, she also discovers what she assumes is Bob’s gentle nature.

While this film purports to take on Brooklyn gang life, there’s a quiet and patient eye here fostered by Roskam’s European sensibilities. Roskam plays his gang cards subtly, chipping away at the soul of crime, leading the viewer on an elusive hunt for a murderer, and throwing in some shreds of love that exist around the edges.

There are some problems with the story. It’s a little muddy as to why Marv, given the type of people he’s dealing with, would try to pull off such a risky heist. Furthermore, the ending is perplexing. When Bob finally reveals himself, the shock and accompanying loss are powerful and worthy of being left alone. Why then would Roskam and writer Dennis Lehane (on whose short story the film is based) create an ending that softens the impact?

Distractions aside, The Drop is absorbing because of Hardy’s performance — his eyes, his taciturn nature, and his ability to lay low until exactly the right moment. Rapace, playing the same tough and tender woman as she did in Hornet’s Nest, matches him step for step. As for Gandolfini, it’s a good (and sad) sendoff, a grimy portrayal of the little guy in gangland who does Soprano’s bidding. It’s a dirty and lonely life filled with wounded pride and desperation, and it’s a role that Gandolfini seems to wear so well.

Instead of the usual gangster film, Roskam chooses to explore the odd details and passions of common street hoodlums. In the Brooklyn setting where these characters exist, there seems to be a symbiotic connection between this city and what Marv and Bob do for a living; so much so, that  I can’t help but wonder if Roskam is pointing to something deep in the human psyche that makes urban living and human brutality natural partners. In The Drop, it sure seems that way.