For all the moderately surprising twists served up in “The Drop,” the big revelation turns out to be no revelation at all: Man, that Tom Hardy can act. Like an adorable puppy that turns out to boast an extremely sharp set of teeth, Hardy’s skillfully restrained performance as a mild-mannered Brooklyn bartender who finds himself an unwitting pawn in all manner of crooked schemes isn’t just the film’s strongest element; it’s the reason this serviceably constructed thriller remains as absorbing as it does, despite a succession of ham-fisted plot turns and goombah stereotypes. Dennis Lehane’s first adaptation of his own work feels minor compared with “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and “Shutter Island,” but it’s not without its low-key pleasures, including a sturdy final screen performance from the late James Gandolfini. Fox Searchlight should expect some decent dough from this Sept. 12 release.
Fans of Lehane’s pungent Boston crime fiction may be a bit surprised that the scribe has relocated his Dorchester-set short story “Animal Rescue” (the film’s original title) to Brooklyn for the purposes of the film, though under the smooth direction of Belgian filmmaker Michael R. Roskam (“Bullhead”), there’s no major loss in seedy atmosphere. As Hardy’s happily infrequent voiceover informs us at the outset, the borough is home to any number of drinking establishments that double as “drop bars” — places where, on very rare nights, large quantities of dirty money can exchange hands away from the prying eyes of the police. Manning the counter at Cousin Marv’s is Bob Saginowski (Hardy), a soft-spoken, hard-working type who likes to keep his head down while Marv himself (Gandolfini) tends to the shadier dealings at the behest of Chovka (Michael Aronov), the Chechen crime lord who owns the bar.
That Bob dutifully attends Mass every morning but abstains from taking communion is an early clue that there’s more to this gruff but likable heavy than meets the eye. Whatever it may be, Hardy does a fine job of keeping the audience guessing: All we can assume is that he’s been scarred by some distant trauma, which may explain why he reacts with such fear and vulnerability when two masked robbers enter the bar and empty the register late one evening. Fortunately, it isn’t a drop-bar night, which means they’ve only lost $5,000. But it’s still enough to piss off Chovka and his thugs, who order them to recover the money — a tricky proposition, as Bob or Cousin Marv would presumably have to be in cahoots with the robbers in order to do so.
As that particular plot thickens, the film sets up a second narrative track in which Bob discovers a pitbull puppy in someone’s garbage, brutally beaten and left for dead by its owner. With the help of an attractive neighbor, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), he nurses the dog back to health, his better judgment and inexperience with pets overcome by his genuine affection for the animal. Naturally it’s not long before Nadia and Bob also begin to get close, taking turns walking and looking after Rocco, as they call him. But Bob soon finds himself inexplicably stalked by the dog’s original owner, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), an intimidating ne’er-do-well who takes a sadistic pleasure in harassing our hero at every opportunity.
It’s hard to remember the last time a canine was made so shamelessly pivotal a character in a mainstream movie (“Marley & Me,” perhaps), but “The Drop” is at once upfront and highly effective in its manipulations, tugging at our heartstrings even as it flicks away at our nerves. Rocco is quite plainly a stand-in for Bob himself — a cute, defenseless, moist-eyed creature who can take only so much abuse before he finally snaps, and it’s clear enough from the setup that Bob will eventually come into his own and become a righteous defender of the weak, rather than remaining one of the weak himself.
Until then, however, the violence arrives from other quarters. Fittingly enough for this gangland genre territory, Roskam throws in the occasional impaled foot and severed limb for effect, but it all feels pretty tame and impersonal compared with the steroid injections and crushed testicles of “Bullhead,” his much more graphic study of tormented masculinity. (The director has learned to economize, however; “The Drop” clocks in at a welcome 106 minutes.) Meanwhile, Hardy underplays to the point of passivity, lowering his gaze, speaking in a mumble, shying away from confrontation and delaying the moment of truth as long as possible without turning the viewer against him.
While the climactic reversal is undeniably effective and darkly funny to boot, the drama can feel fairly creaky, even perplexing, during the buildup. The parallel narrative structure, cross-cutting between Bob’s woes at work and his puppy-love story at home, never seems especially organic — least of all when the two threads converge, and “The Drop” essentially becomes a three-way showdown, pitting Bob against Marv against Eric, and leaving it to the viewer to decide which man has more dangerously underestimated the others. This is one case of the destination being more satisfying than the journey: Even allowing for the generic requirements of a suspenseful action climax, the pieces don’t snap satisfyingly into place as they should, and it’s hard not to wonder if something crucial got distorted in the process of expanding Lehane’s story into a feature.
Slapping on a persuasive Noo Yawk accent and eliminating all traces of the suavity he’s displayed elsewhere, Hardy is so good here that it almost doesn’t matter that Bob feels like a somewhat hollow construct in the end, engineered to stir the audience’s compassion and their bloodlust simultaneously. In his English-language filmmaking debut, Roskam has pointedly cast both his countryman Schoenaerts (“Bullhead”) and Swedish actress Rapace (best known for the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” movie trilogy), neither of whom blends as seamlessly into the Brooklyn background as Hardy does, but who both prevail on the strength of their screen magnetism alone.
Elsewhere, John Ortiz and Ann Dowd round out the working-class environs with brief but effective turns as a nosy police detective and Marv’s put-upon sister, respectively. Adding further flavor and texture are Marco Beltrami’s lightly pulsing score and Nicolas Karakatsanis’ moody lensing of Brooklyn locations, whether on an abandoned street where a bloody double-cross is afoot, or under the golden glow of the lamps at Cousin Marv’s. As for Hardy’s four-legged co-stars, three puppies (aged a few weeks apart) handle Rocco’s thesping duties with predictably scene-stealing aplomb.
Unsurprisingly, though, it’s Gandolfini who offers the most invaluable support here, putting across Cousin Marv’s cynicism and capacity for reckless violence in a few deft, understated strokes, certainly all that’s needed from an actor whose iconic tough-guy stature can hardly be overestimated. “The Drop” may not be as moving or revelatory a final showcase for Gandolfini’s talents as last year’s “Enough Said,” but it’s a fitting, well-played note to end on nonetheless.