In "The Drop," director Michael R. Roskam follows the old "Jaws" adage to hide the shark as long as possible. Guns permeate this crime thriller set largely in a Brooklyn "drop bar," a collection point for enough small-time gambling and prostitution cash that it becomes a big-time operation for its gangster owners. But count the number of gunshots in the first, oh, 90-plus minutes — there are none. Violence is meted out in tight parcels, and it swirls around the bartender, Bob, played with cool, seemingly guileless reserve by Tom Hardy. He just tends bar, he insists, though that includes slipping pudgy envelopes through a hidden slot in the bar into a safe, and taking sour orders from his older cousin, Marv, the bar's one-time owner. That's James Gandolfini in his final cinematic performance before he faded to black at 51. He's all coiled rage here, another explosion on a delayed trigger.
Two things happen to disrupt Bob's routine of late nights, passive money laundering and early morning mass. The bar gets held up: Two men in masks and hoodies burst in after closing, wave shotguns around and make off with a healthy take. Bob notices a detail about them that interests the detective on the case (John Ortiz) and the Chechen mobster (Michael Aronov) who sets about trying to locate the culprits. Also, Bob finds a roughed-up pit bull puppy in a garbage can that he reluctantly, then wholeheartedly, adopts, with the guidance of a new friend, Nadia (Noomi Rapace, a highlight as always).
Adapted for the screen by Dennis Lehane from his own short story, "The Drop" is that rare outer-borough New York film that has zero interest in Manhattan. It tries to paint a Brooklyn of the increasingly old school; the only nod to gentrification is the sale of the church that the detective complains will be carved into condos with stained-glass windows. This sub-section of the city moves slowly and has long memories — witness the rounds of shots guys at the bar hoist to send off a departed buddy, 10 years after he went missing. Or Marv's ire at not being able to sit in his stool — his stool — at the bar. The only character who evinces a trace of ambition for something greater is Marv's suffering sister, and even she resigns to waiting until her next life to see Europe.
The tone of the town sets a pace that "The Drop" at times struggles to keep lively. The small cast and the human scale of the setting make this an uncommonly intimate crime drama. But the story dotes too long on Bob's foray into puppy fatherhood and buckles somewhat under his very inscrutability. Hardy's performance, while fantastic, has to carry more weight than might be strictly possible. Bob is quiet and earnest to the point of seeming almost simple, in the euphemistic sense. Roskam allots him a couple of partial smiles that might in fact add up to half a grin through the entire film.
How much you let yourself fall for Hardy's stern turn here will determine how much you enjoy "The Drop," because as it strolls forward, biding its time, the film puts increasing strain on a revelatory ending — one that, as it turns out, does make for a solid payoff. Still, you're going to spend a lot of time with this bartender, his cousin and his lady friend. It will take more patience than you might expect to reap the rewards from what could be the sharpest crime flick of the year so far.