‘The Drop’: Acting of quiet brilliance by Hardy, Gandolfini

SHARE ‘The Drop’: Acting of quiet brilliance by Hardy, Gandolfini
SHARE ‘The Drop’: Acting of quiet brilliance by Hardy, Gandolfini

Tom Hardy (left) and James Gandolfini in “The Drop.” | FOX SEARCHLIGHT

With “The Drop” comes the late James Gandolfini’s final film role, and we should not be surprised if Mr. Gandolfini receives a posthumous Best Supporting Actor nomination for his quietly magnificent work as a Brooklyn bar owner and small-time crook still seething over his removal from his perceived throne of power nearly a decade earlier.

Gandolfini plays “Cousin Marv,” a former loan shark who used to own the tavern bearing his own name before he was shoved aside by Chechen mobsters and reduced to managing the place and accepting “drops,” aka envelopes thick with cash from crimes committed elsewhere.

As Marv’s actual cousin, his bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) puts it, Marv thought he was a tough guy until some real tough guys moved in, and then “you flinched, and that was it.”

Directed with an understated, authentic touch by Michael Roskam and adapted by Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”) from Lehane’s own short story, “The Drop” is filled with many such small, near-perfect moments where there’s so much more going on beyond the simple exchanges of dialogue. Even when Bob is bargaining with the pit bull puppy he rescued from a garbage can, it feels like a two-character scene carved right out of true life.

“The Drop” is the story of a neighborhood where just about everyone seems to be a criminal, a dockworker, a priest, a cop or a waitress, and there’s a lot of looking the other way when something goes wrong. It’s about the kind of closed-off neighborhood where burly guys wearing their coats inside the bar because it’s so friggin’ cold out are hoisting shots to the memory of a guy nicknamed “Glory Days” who walked out of the place 10 years ago and was never seen again. When Bob buys a round on the house, Marv is in the background, muttering about these guys still “getting free drinks off a corpse.”

But it’s not Marv at the center of “The Drop.” It’s Tom Hardy’s Bob, a quiet, almost gentlemanly lunk who lives in his late parents’ home (their funeral mass cards still prominently displayed) and speaks in a manner reminiscent of Stallone in the very first “Rocky.” And a la Rocky and Adrian, there’s even an awkward but touching possible romance with a shy girl named Nadia (Noomi Rapace from the original “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) — but like just about everyone in Bob’s life, Nadia might not be exactly what she appears to be.

Tom Hardy tells Zwecker that James Gandolfini was ‘wickedly funny’

Tom Hardy, who gave a nomination-worthy performance of his own in “Locke” earlier this year, has the kind of presence you just can’t force on screen. Bob Saginowski doesn’t say much, he doesn’t seem to have any friends, and the barflies are greatly amused when they hear he might have a girlfriend — but he is not someone to be underestimated. Even though Cousin Marv is quick to put down Bob, he’s also quick to warn others to tread lightly in Bob’s presence. Whether he’s setting up Bob, looking after his younger cousin in his own gruff way or up to something else altogether is for you to discover.

Although there are a few scenes of bloodshed, “The Drop” is much more about the nature of violent men than the brief explosions of violence that can define an entire life. When Marv and Bob humble themselves in the presence of the Chechen mobster Chovka (Michael Aronov), when Bob negotiates ownership of the puppy he rescued with the dog’s legal owner (Matthias Schoenaerts), who beat the pup and terrorized Nadia, the tension is thick, even when the payoff is everyone just walking away (for the moment anyway).

We get a few too many shots of the whimpering puppy, which also seems to get bigger and then shrink in something of a continuity problem. And the religious symbolism feels borrowed with less than a subtle hand from early Scorsese.

But there’s so much to admire here. Gandolfini is playing a very different criminal from the mob boss Tony Soprano. This is a guy who overstates his former position of authority, and can’t get past his current post as a nobody managing a nothing bar that exists only as a front. Even when he’s bickering with his older sister (the great Ann Dowd, seen most recently on HBO’s “The Leftovers”) about whether he’s hungry or not, or debating with her what they should do about their father who’s on life support, Marv seems like he’s having another conversation in his head about something else that’s bothering him as well.

And if we’re having a conversation about the 10 best film actors in the world, Tom Hardy has made a very strong case this year about being a part of that discussion.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Michael Roskam and written by Dennis Lehane, based on his short story. Running time: 106 minutes. Rated R (for some strong violence and pervasive language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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