Brooklyn is a big place. Lots of bad things go on there. Bad things generate a lot of cash. "All that money has to go somewhere," as Tom Hardy says in a voice-over at the beginning of "The Drop." The premise of the movie, which crime novelist Dennis Lehane adapted from his short story "Animal Rescue," is that there are "drop bars" — bars where various illegal enterprises will bring in large sums of cash each week for the mob to collect.
Bars, being mostly cash operations where shady individuals have been known to congregate, are ideal locations for this service. To make things difficult for anyone who might think of grabbing all that cash, the drop-bar location constantly shifts.
(Before going any further, some slight geographical explanation is in order."Brooklyn"? Lehane is very much a Boston novelist, as "Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone," and "Shutter Island" famously attest. And both "Animal Rescue" and his novel "The Drop," which Lehane adapted from his screenplay, are set in Dorchester. But the movie isn't. Well, you know how Hollywood is.)
Back to drop bars. Cousin Marv's is one. Marv (the late James Gandolfini) is the proprietor. He used to be the owner, until he ran afoul of the Chechen mafia. Now he works for them, something that still rankles. His chief bartender is Bob, and Marv really is Bob's cousin.
As played by Tom Hardy, Bob is at once stolid and kind and a bit dull. Or is he? One of the things that makes Hardy's performance the best thing in "The Drop" is his ability to suggest ever so slightly that there's more going on with Bob than you might at first think. The man is definitely a bit of a puzzle. He goes to 8 o'clock Mass every morning — yet never takes Communion. He lives alone and seems to have no friends — yet when he encounters an abandoned puppy, he takes him in. Bob's a tough guy who's a softie — or maybe the other way around. That sounds like the worst sort of pulp cliche. Hardy turns it into a flesh-and-blood character. (Speaking of blood, it's not seen that often in "The Drop." When it is, though, watch out — or look away.) Hardy makes Bob's contradictions — all right, his implausibilities — thoroughly believable.
Not that it needed demonstrating, but Hardy once again shows what quiet force and phenomenal range he has. He's like a young Liam Neeson with Michael Fassbender chops. Inside that blocking-back body is the soul of an orchid breeder, mass murderer, or certified public accountant. You name it, Hardy can do it. The same man who was an MI6 agent in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (2011) was a Virginia bootlegger in "Lawless" and, of course, Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises" (both 2012). And that's not counting Hardy's tour de force earlier this year in "Locke," where he's onscreen for every moment as the world's most justifiably distracted driver. The prospect of Hardy playing Mad Max (the remake is set for 2015 release) is exciting indeed.
Hardy's in good company in "The Drop." In his last feature film role, Gandolfini acquits himself well; he makes Marv's resentment and self-disgust feel as real, and sizable, as the man's gut. Noomi Rapace is Bob's sort-of love interest. She's largely wasted in the part — not that it's much of a part — but there are flashes where you can see why Rapace took over "Prometheus" (2012) and made for such a memorable Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. But it's Hardy's movie.
That's good, because whenever he's off-screen the film's shortcomings become apparent. Although Michaël R. Roskam's direction is capable enough, it's untextured and anonymous. The storytelling can get sluggish, which is not a good thing in a movie with an increasingly complicated plot. It includes multiple double crosses, at least two shameless coincidences, and a crucially misattributed homicide. There are aspirations to larger things and deeper emotions — or perhaps that should be Larger Things and Deeper Emotions — like Marv's kitchen-sink-drama relationship with his sister (the gifted Ann Dowd), the bits with the puppy, and Bob's churchgoing. They're devices at best (the puppy), distractions at worst. "The Drop" wants to be more than just a taut, terse thriller — not that there's anything "just" about achieving such a thing. They're as rare, and valuable, as first-rate drama. Hardy's presence insures that "The Drop" is something more, but only intermittently. Even he can do only so much.