Aside from its value as a work in and of itself, "The Drop," rather like another fine recent movie, "A Most Wanted Man," constitutes a kind of mixed blessing. It presents audiences once again with the ambiguous, bittersweet gift of an opportunity to witness the last performance of a talented, accomplished performer, in this instance the late James Gandolfini. Like those arts that preserve a moment of time, the cinema suggests that there is a life after death. That art is long if life is short.
As the narrator/protagonist, Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), informs us, the title refers to the Brooklyn tavern where he works as a bartender for his cousin Marvin (Gandolfini). Cousin Marvin's is a drop bar, a place where various criminals connected to the Chechen mob drop off illicit cash. Marvin acts as a sort of safe deposit box and bank, keeping the money temporarily, transferring it to others, passing it up the ladder to the boss, in this case a Chechen gangster named Chovka (Michael Avonov).
The movie opens with Bob buying a round of drinks for the regulars in memory of a friend, Richie Wheeler, killed 10 years earlier, a gesture that in effect explains itself in a violent climactic sequence. Later, two other, seemingly unrelated incidents trigger a surprisingly complicated plot beneath the deceptively simple surface. Two armed, masked thugs hold up the bar, taking over five thousand dollars of the Mob's stored cash, and Bob finds a bruised and beaten puppy in a garbage can.
As if this tough little picture were a mundane romantic comedy, the discovery of the puppy leads Bob to meet Nadia (NoomiRapace) and to an odd, tentative relationship between them. The puppy also, however, brings a vicious psychopath, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nadia's ex-boyfriend, into their lives. Rumored to be the murderer of Richie Wheeler, Deeds threatens both Bob and Nadia, claiming the puppy as his dog -- with proof of ownership -- and promising to recover it, then torture and kill it unless Bob pays him a large amount of money.
At the same time, another complication involving Marvin's connection to the stolen cash opens up more difficulties for Bob. Thanks to the Chechens, a really nasty bunch, the money turns up at Cousin Marvin's in a bag, along with one of the robber's severed arm, and another murder reveals yet further dimensions to both the characters and the history behind Marvin's own character. Everything comes clear when the film completes a full circle, culminating in a scene in the bar on Super Bowl Sunday that somehow seems both surprising and inevitable.
In that climax the script unites all its various threads of character and motivation, bringing together Bob, Nadia, Deeds, and Marvin, and even explaining the 10-year-old murder mentioned in the opening sequence. Its violence, as a result, justifies itself without in any way providing an easy way out or a pat version of closure.
"The Drop" functions with a sense of absolute precision and control that permeates every element of the film. The actors deliver the script's gritty dialogue with a kind of eloquent understatement, creating some powerful moments and meanings through pauses and silences as much as through the words themselves. The working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, the interiors of the houses, the particular domestic lives of its people, Cousin Marvin's bar itself all create an impressive and convincing reality.
Without glamor or exaggeration the whole cast participates in the intense emotions that lie beneath the bleak surface of the action, virtually sinking into the context of time and place. The actors speak the script's gritty and often menacing dialogue with an eloquent understatement more unsettling than the posturing and shouting of so many second-rate crime dramas.
A long way from Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini plays a bitter, disappointed crook, remembering his glory days, regarding the world and its people with unabated scorn. Sharing the screen with a presence as strong and defined as Gandolfini, Tom Hardy more than holds his own, carving out his own character, an apparently passive, barely articulate victim of circumstances who reveals a dark history in the film's climactic sequence. Despite Gandolfini and an excellent cast, he really makes "The Drop" a gripping, completely engaging work, a genuine gangster movie.