If the imagined stereotype of modern-day Brooklyn is bearded hipsters buying vinyl in Williamsburg, casually pushing Bugaboos down the street and attending trendy brunches, then those tourists have never been to the Brooklyn of “The Drop,” a tucked-away corner of the five boroughs where everything but the cell phones seem out of date. It’s an insular working-class community that’s very real in Brooklyn’s outer regions, but strains to feel authentic because the characters within are either overly-familiar streetwise caricatures or imitations that would get laughed off the block should they dare a stroll. Heavily indebted to the films of Sidney Lumet, “The Drop” badly wants to be a gritty, old school ‘70s classic crime drama (with some shades of modern “Sopranos”), but the stress of such want creates a lot of internal confusion. It’s Sidney Lumet, with a little David Chase, as constructed on a flawed foundational slope; just off the mark enough to tip by the time it’s all over.
In this forgotten milieu lies a local haunt, and as the unnecessary narration conveniently spells out, it’s a “drop bar,” a house that funnels dirty money all day for the local gangsters to come and collect. Within this dingy establishment is Bob Saginowski, the quiet, sullen and possibly dim-witted bartender (Tom Hardy). Bob’s boss is his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), a bitter, former tough guy still brooding over the unlucky hand that life dealt him years ago when he actually owned this bar and commanded respect on the streets.
While this is core story, it appears as side dish, as “The Drop” actually focuses initially on the story of an abandoned pit bull puppy and how it connects a host of characters. Bob discovers the dog, beaten and bloody, left to die in the garbage, and with the help of Nadia (Noomi Rapace)—the random neighbor whose trashcan the dog was found in—Bob rescues the animal. Moreover, in meeting Nadia, he makes what appears to be his first real human connection outside Marv in quite some time. But Bob and Nadia are being watched. Someone wants to know how much the doggy in the window costs, and that price will rear its head (Ruh Roh!).
And so, “The Drop” splits its time between the story of Bob, ineptly trying to become a dog owner (you’d think the animal was a baby elephant with wings), beginning a tentative friendship, possibly even romance with Nadia, and the crime story surrounding the bar that finally starts when the dive is robbed one night when the money is supposed to go into the hands of ruthless Chechen mobsters.
Then there’s another thuggish dullard in the picture, played by Matthias Schoenaerts. He’s a local brute who starts harassing Bob, eventually blackmailing him over the dog. When Bob is threatened face to face, the quiet barkeep is either too cowardly and or restrained to do anything about it. Meanwhile the drama becomes more thorny when the mobsters start come after Marv and Bob about the whereabouts of their money, and a local cop (Jon Ortiz) doesn’t help matters when he becomes interested in the case and starts sniffing around.
Did we mention Marv has a chip on his shoulder and that Schoenhaerts is also allegedly connected to the oft-mentioned mysterious unsolved death of a local neighborhood kid from Bob’s past? Then of course there’s the central mysteries (who robbed the bar, who killed the kid) and the surprise twist that attempts to tether all these disparate stories together. If it all sounds convoluted and familiar, that’s because it absolutely is. Beyond the clunky inelegance and familiarity of the plot, none of the normally terrific cast of actors are given much to do that you haven’t seen a hundred times before in far more inspired crime dramas.
Despite this talented ensemable, “The Drop” rarely clicks, and most of the cast are on a pedestrian form of tough guy autopilot rather than connecting with each other or the material. The late James Gandolfini delivers dialogue seemingly filtered through the random James Gandolfini dialogue generator and therefore his performance is tiresomely gruff and banal. Tom Hardy is one of the great actors of his generation, possessing Brando-like intensity and a world of smoldering internal life. However, director Michaël R. Roskam (“Bullhead”) never taps into that wealth of simmering moodiness in any meaningful way. In fact, Hardy, the protagonist, is a key weakness in the film and he feels not only lost but woefully out of place. His character carries a burden that makes him more complex than he initially seems, but Hardy plays him like an awkward halfwit—you’re half expecting some character from the neighborhood to call him “Marv’s cousin, you know, he’s a little slow.” His unfortunate choice of accent is decidedly more doofus than regional, and the ceaselessly artificial mumble doesn’t help, nor does it help endear you to him. And don’t even ask about actor-to-actor chemistry between him and Rapace.
These are only some of the drama’s myriad problems. Not only is it flat and unremarkably drawn, it suffers from a lack of a point of view or any character to sympathize with. More a densely-plotted and shallow crime thriller/whodunnit than anything else—all human texture is eventually just wallpaper—as an audience you’re just watching characters go through the motions of survival, hustling and duplicity. Absent are the elements that would make you care about any of these people or their fate. And the plot might have multiple strands, but its overall presentation is lackluster.
In this foreign setting, Roskam demonstrates no affinity for human behavior or the intense impulses that made his Academy Award-nominated “Bullhead” so compelling. When “The Drop” eventually fumbles into its tedious final act, the movie has all but lost its way and becomes a tonal mess that’s overstayed its marginal welcome. Two egregious insults to injury along the way to its lumbering conclusion don’t help. One is an editing cacophony meant to escalate tension in the climax, but is executed in a bafflingly sophomoric manner. And a regrettable last minute decision to attach moral dimensions of penitence via a groan-worthy concluding narration simply feels tacked on (the film evidently suddenly believing it’s a James Gray movie).
Penned by premiere crime novelist and screenwriter Dennis Lehane (“Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River“) it’s possible that in script form, “The Drop” is a convincing and multifaceted read of interconnected fates. Somewhere buried underneath all the superfluous subplots is a story about ego, burdens of the past and the weight of sins and guilt—Bob’s got a secret after all, and it needs to see the light of day. But as rendered by Roskam’s direction, the movie is shapeless in form, unnecessarily tangled and all too predictable (genuine notions of class are built into the community, but sadly never go beyond the superficial).
The pit bull puppy subplot is also rather pointless, even though the introduction of the animal helps put the narrative in motion. But for a film once titled “Animal Rescue,” the abused and rescued canine provides zero meaningful emotional or thematic weight whatsoever, and therefore is no more than a contrived device to connect all the characters, and one that features all through out the film.
It’s tempting to blame the misguided nature of the movie on language. This is, after all, Roskam’s English-language feature debut—and it is a sort of fascinating master class in painfully redundant dialogue and needlessly dumb banter—but the film’s issues feel much more elemental. A movie starring Hardy, one of the last appearances of James Gandolfini, along with Rapace, Schoenaerts, Ann Dowd, as directed by Michael Roskam and written by Denis Lehane, should be an highlight in any year. But the tepid final product is a big derivative misfire caught in its own featureless leash. An uninspired movie, “The Drop” would be utterly forgettable if it weren’t for the fact that you’re left wondering how all this talent created something so unexceptional. Stale also from the start, it doesn’t take long to figure out this dog won’t hunt. [C-]