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‘The Drop’ Gandolfini’s final onscreen appearance

“The Drop” will be remembered as the final onscreen appearance of the late, great James Gandolfini.

If there’s any justice, it also will be the final Tom Hardy movie that’s greeted with a collective, “Wait, who’s Tom Hardy?”

“The Drop” is a small, slow-burning character study stuffed with fully realized, lived-in characters. And it further bolsters the case for Hardy’s status as the film world’s finest actor whom the average moviegoer still can’t quite place, despite his roles in the blockbusters “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Bob Saginowski (Hardy) pours drinks at his Cousin Marv’s bar, appropriately named Cousin Marv’s Bar. The joint’s always been connected, going back to Marv’s (Gandolfini) loan-sharking days. But 8½ years ago, Chechen mobsters made a move, Marv backed down, and they’ve owned it ever since, using it as a “drop bar” whenever it’s convenient.

“In Brooklyn, money changes hands all night long,” Bob says in a voiceover. At the end of the night, though, that money, acquired through all manner of illegal activities throughout the borough, has to go somewhere. And, from time to time, that place is Cousin Marv’s. “I just tend bar,” Bob says, “and wait.”

Bob’s a man of few words, and the ones he chooses fall out in a kind of halting, unsure rasp. He comes across like the slowest Wahlberg brother, the one you secretly suspect Mark and Donnie keep hidden in a basement.

Bob mostly keeps to himself, tending bar then returning to the house that doesn’t look as though it’s changed much since his late parents lived there. Walking home one night, he discovers a beaten, bloodied pit bull puppy in a trash can and finds himself being drawn out into the world more than he has been in quite some time.

Nadia (Noomi Rapace), the can’s suspicious owner, brings Bob and the puppy inside, but only after taking a picture of his driver’s license and sending it to four friends, you know, just in case. It’s evident by the way she carries herself that she’s nearly as damaged as Bob. The outsiders ultimately bond over raising the pup, which Bob names Rocco, although he very much likes the name Mike.

But before the gritty “The Drop” can wander into rom-com territory, a lowlife named Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) blows into Bob’s life like a menacing, slow-moving storm front.

Deeds shows up at Bob’s house claiming Rocco is his and demanding his return. He enters the bar while it’s closed and asks for some Zima. He breaks into Nadia’s place looking to rekindle their failed romance. Deeds also is the main suspect in a decades-old disappearance being investigated by the detective (John Ortiz) Bob sees every morning at Mass. It soon becomes clear that if Bob and Nadia are going to find any sort of happiness, Deeds will have to be dealt with.

It’s not a lot to hang a movie on. But compared to this summer’s terrific “Locke,” which was 85 minutes of Hardy talking on the phone while driving to London, it feels like “The Godfather.”

Directed by Michael R. Roskam (“Bullhead”), “The Drop” marks the screenwriting debut of Dennis Lehane, the novelist behind “Mystic River,” “Shutter Island” and the vastly underrated “Gone Baby Gone.” Here, he’s adapting his own short story, “Animal Kingdom,” and the results feel as rough and real as his books. (To steal from the Dos Equis Guy, I don’t always read novels, but when I do, I prefer Lehane’s.)

In many ways, “The Drop” plays out like a less-stylized version of “Drive.” And it’s a tremendous showcase for the versatile Hardy, who’s been tapped to play the leads in everything from next summer’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” to the Elton John biopic “Rocketman.” He’s simply mesmerizing as Bob, underplaying the role at every turn as you wonder what exactly is going on in his head. The staggering scene in which he finally opens up will no doubt be a highlight of his career retrospective.

The pleasures of seeing Gandolfini again, 15 months after his death, can’t be overstated. Marv isn’t his greatest role. It’s not even his best posthumously released performance. (That would be his revelatory turn in the comedy “Enough Said.”) But having him back in his element one last time feels like a victory lap.

There’s a moody weariness to his rumpled, past-his-prime, low-level gangster. Everything Marv ever had has been taken from him, and he’s forced to work for the men who took it.

He lives with his sister (Ann Dowd), their father is on life support, and the bills are already at the collection agency.

Marv is a beaten man whose choicest bit of self-awareness would have been devastating even if Gandolfini were still with us:

“We’re (expletive)-in’ dead already. We’re just walkin’ around.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.

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