THE DROP (NC16)
107 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2
The story: Brooklyn's gangs use neighbourhood bars or "drops" to collect gambling bets. Cousin Marv's, run by Marv (James Gandolfini) and bartender Bob (Tom Hardy), is one such place. It is ripe for robbery but no one dares try. One night, the shy, slow-witted but compassionate Bob finds an injured puppy while walking home. He seeks the help of nearby resident Nadia (Noomi Rapace) in caring for the animal. One day, Chechen gangsters decide to use the bar as a cache for the biggest gambling haul of the year.
Each season brings out a fresh crop of character-driven thrillers about tough guys, close-knit neighbourhoods, codes of honour and capers gone awry.
Many misfire because it is tricky to find the sweet spot in the midst of the three magic points of plot, character and action, or because they fail to integrate the three into a satisfying whole.
This project is a rare success, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it features a Belgian director (Michael Roskam, who helmed the excellent Bullhead, 2011), an English lead actor (Hardy), a Swedish female lead (Rapace) and a Belgian, Matthias Schoenaarts, playing the heavy Eric Deeds.
Director Roskam gets to the heart of the screenplay by Writers Guild of America winner Dennis Lehane (who co-wrote the cable series The Wire, 2002).
While other mean streets-style movies try to depict the power of brotherly bonds or family affection (usually declared in one of two ways - with barely audible, gruff proclamations of love, or screaming down hallways), Lehane uses old neighbourhood secrets to push the story along. The engine here is what happened a decade ago around Marv's bar and why.
This is not new territory for the screenwriter. His scripts for crime drama Mystic River (2003) and novel Shutter Island (made into a 2010 movie, with a screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis) also employ a central mystery around which characters tiptoe.
Roskam drops just enough information about the mystery at the heart of this work to keep things interesting and the stellar cast do the rest.
This was Gandolfini's last feature film performance before he died in June last year. Here, he gives a faultless performance as Marv, the tough bar owner and neighbourhood fixture whom everyone mistakenly thinks they know.
Hardy's Bob is the classic sweet-hearted working-class schmoe who is not too bright, a fact which helps him stay below the radar of some dangerous men. Hardy's Brooklyn accent wavers in and out, but he plays Bob with great control and stillness, hinting at depths unknown even to his closest friends.