The kind of solid, honest-feeling, mean-streets movie you might think they only make in Boston these days, Michael R. Roskam's "The Drop" was, in fact, set there before filmmakers decided to shake things up by moving it to Brooklyn. The anthology "Boston Noir" is the source of Dennis Lehane's short story "Animal Rescue," in which a tender-hearted man with a past gets into trouble after finding a pit-bull puppy in a garbage can.
Brooklyn isn't the star of the film, nor is Lehane's excellent dialogue, and neither is Roskam, here making a sure-footed jump to America after his Belgian debut "Bullhead." The picture belongs to Tom Hardy, whose astonishingly sensitive performance even the great James Gandolfini steps gently around. As he helped do in "Warrior," Hardy takes an already fine genre film and adds ballast, making you forget how many times you've heard the tale. The picture should play equally well at multiplexes and with critics, paving the way for Roskam to make more personal movies on these shores.
Hardy is Bob, bartender at a place run by (and named for) his Cousin Marv (Gandolfini). Marv used to own it, before some Chechen mobsters made him a mere figurehead; now it's one of many watering holes that, on any given night, might be designated as the temporary bank for the gang's illicit cash. When it's your night, envelopes full of bills come across the bar throughout business hours and go into a time-release safe; the big guys come around in the early morning, collect, and your blood pressure can return to normal until next time.
Marv, still resentful about the takeover, wants to engineer a holdup of his own bar on drop night. He's smart enough not to involve Bob (who'd be smart enough to say no) but that doesn't make him wise: A trial run, in which some unseasoned hoods rob the till on his behalf, both angers the Chechens and draws the interest of Detective Torres (John Ortiz), who recognizes Bob from his church. Attempting to distance himself from any controversy, Bob focuses on the abused pup he just found and the stranger, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who is unexpectedly helping him care for it. But even this charitable effort stirs up trouble: Neighborhood creep Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) starts stalking him, making claims on the dog and suggesting a connection with Nadia as well.
As Marv, Gandolfini points toward a place he might have staked out in crime films had he lived longer: We see the characters who are far from the center of power, men who've missed opportunities real or imagined but are desperate enough to make a final play.
Lehane's fat-trimmed script, whose dialogue sometimes recalls his work on "The Wire," is full of backstory that's hinted at just enough for us to imagine for ourselves. Its weakest spot is Nadia, who despite a little detail exists mainly as a gift from God for Bob that Deeds will try to take away. There's a way in which knowing so little about her is appropriate – Bob, who can serve people beer all night without confiding in anyone, can hardly get her phone number, much less grow intimate with her over these few nervous days. But it's telling that Lehane's between-the-lines work is much more suggestive when it comes to Weeks, a more peripheral character.
As for Bob, neither the screenplay nor the actor is eager to pin him down. He was part of "a crew" in his youth, we know; today, he cares enough about a stray dog to stand up to serious intimidation for its sake. Is he a dormant man of violence; a reformed softie; a loyal but socially awkward lonelyheart? He might be all three. But wondering how he's going to handle the mess Marv is creating makes "The Drop" worthwhile.