Gire: Gandolfini, Hardy add sharp focus to crime drama 'The Drop'

The dramatically explosive ending of "The Drop" more than justifies its long, long fuse, resulting in two Big Bangs that create not a moral universe, but a multiverse of moralities the characters can adopt as needed.

This gritty Catholic crime tale - adapted by novelist Dennis Lehane from his short story "Animal Rescue" - might lack the raw power and finesse of previous movies based on his books ("Shutter Island," "Gone Baby Gone" and "Mystic River"), but efficient, clean performances by the late James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy preserve the drama's keen and cutting edge.

Eight years ago, Marv (Gandolfini) became a little sloppy and lost his Brooklyn bar to a ruthless Chechen crime boss, Chovka (Michael Aronov), who keeps Marv around to manage the joint.

His longtime bartender and cousin Bob Saginowski (Hardy) has also stayed on. He survives by speaking softly, averting his gaze and staying out of trouble.

At the beginning of "The Drop," Bob's voice-over narration gives us a clunky, expository lecture (easy literary devices must be difficult for Lehane to discard) about how Brooklyn bars take turns being the drop-off points for laundered mob money, and no one knows which bar will be the next one.

One night, two masked gunmen bust into Marv's bar and take $5,000. Good thing it wasn't drop night.

That won't happen until Super Bowl Sunday, and Chovka advises Marv he should be ready. In the meantime, Chovka demands that Marv retrieve the missing money, or else.

This puts Marv in a spot. If he somehow finds the stolen cash, will Chovka think he was in cahoots with the robbers? It's just one of many unknown variables that keep us uncomfortably on edge.

Brooklyn cop Torres (John Ortiz) investigates the robbery. He also attends the same church as Bob, and notices the bartender never takes communion. Why not?

In a parallel development, Bob discovers a badly beaten puppy crammed into a trash can. He rescues the dog, and with the help of a neighbor named Nadia (original Swedish "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" star Noomi Rapace), he reluctantly takes the canine into his home ...

... not realizing that an intimidating lowlife thug named Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) will call dibs on owning the dog and cause trouble for Bob and Nadia.

"The Drop" doesn't traffick in big, broad gestures or showcase action sequences such as raging gun battles and ridiculous car chases.

Directed by Belgian filmmaker Michael R. Roskam (of "Bullhead" credit), "The Drop" gives us a nuanced character study of enigmatic personalities we think might be more than they seem, a supposition eventually borne out as their options diminish.

Each time someone compliments Bob on his "good-looking dog," the comment takes on a completely different meaning, depending on who says it and why.

The most significant line in Lehane's screenplay comes from sadistic bully Eric, who tells Bob, "I'm the guy you never see coming."

We infer that there will be other guys we never see coming in "The Drop," and that gnawing awareness fuels the slow-burn narrative, as does Marco Beltrami's cautiously needling score.

Former "Sopranos" star Gandolfini supplies cousin Marv with a complex combination of resentment, anger, misgiving, weariness and fatalism. It's a textbook example of minimalist performance, even if it lacks the range of Gandolfini's likable guy in last year's "Enough Said."

British actor Hardy continues his astonishing record of diverse and nailed-down characters. His Brooklyn Bob looks, moves and sounds as authentic as Rocky Balboa in Philadelphia, a working-class stiff smart enough to stay out of trouble, yet smart enough to know when to deal with it.

Rapace's tough, recovering victim nicely complements Hardy's bartender. (Strangely, neither character has any friends, family or co-workers for emotional support.)

"There are some sins you commit that you can't come back from," Bob observes.

And that's when you run into the guys you never see coming.

Tom Hardy plays Bob, a Brooklyn bartender who rescues a metaphorically significant puppy in the crime drama “The Drop.”

"The Drop"

★ ★ ★ ½

Starring: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ann Dowd

Directed by: Michael R. Roskam

Other: A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R for violence, language. 106 minutes

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