By Richard Corliss
September 12, 2014

Everybody knows a guy like Bob Saginowsky — everybody who’s seen an intimate urban crime movie over the past 60 years. Amid the tough talkers packing loud pistols and big balls, Bob (Tom Hardy) is the quiet, pensive one, a decent sort who’s a bit on the slow side, keeping his head down and doing his job. That’s serving drinks at the Brooklyn bar run by his cousin Marvin (James Gandolfini). Marv, who is up to his burly shoulders in mob worries, calls Bob “the guy who wasted his entire life waitin’ for it to start.”

It’s easy to see Bob as a movie descendant of Terry Malloy, the emotionally wounded pug played by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, but with Brooklyn for Hoboken and a pit-bull puppy to care for instead of pigeons. What he lacks is the chance at a boxing title in his regretful past. Bob’s backstory is a blank slate for much of The Drop, the long-fuse thriller that Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam has fashioned from a screenplay by Dennis Lehane, who birthed the dramas Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island — all set in Lehane’s Boston neighborhood of Dorchester.

(READ: Richard Schickel on the Dennis Lehane–Clint Eastwood Mystic River)

Cousin Marvin’s Place is a “drop bar”: On certain nights, Bob stashes hot cash from bookies for the higher-ups to collect at closing time. One night two punks raid the bar and take $5,000 — Marv’s, not the bookies. But he’s in debt to the Chechen gangster Chovka (Michael Aronov) whose father took over ownership of the bar some years back, a transfer that still rankles Marv. Bob, who goes to daily Mass but never takes Communion, has his own problems. A nosy detective (John Ortiz) keeps badgering him about the punks’ disappearance. Bob has also saved a battered terrier puppy from a trash can in the front yard of pretty, grim Nadia (Noomi Rapace). The puppy used to belong to psycho case Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), and so did Nadia. He’d prefer it if Bob stayed away from both of his new friends.

For a certain kind of moviegoer, the cast of The Drop is a polyglot dream come true. Imagine a mix of Hardy, the try-anything English star who incarnated the catarrhal monster Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and was the only person in-screen in Locke; Rapace, a revelation as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy; Schoenaerts, who played the pathetic cattle farmer in Roskam’s first feature, the Oscar-nominated Bullhead, as well as Marion Cotillard’s therapeutic beau in Rust and Bone; and Gandolfini the great, in his final film role. What’s weird is that they would all meet in Brooklyn, not Dorchester, to impersonate a passel of Kings County lowlifes trying to survive winter. It’s as if Leonardo deCaprio and the cast of Shutter Island had convened in Reykjavik to film some 11th-century saga in the original Icelandic.

(READ: Corliss on the Dennis Lehane–Martin Scorsese Shutter Island)

Not that the imported actors, who surely have been watching American movies all their lives, have any trouble with the Brooklyn accents. They fit snugly into Ruskam’s muddy noirish scheme, fraught with blurred movement in the foreground of a long shot (is some evil dude watching?) and the soughing violins of Marco Beltrami’s slightly too emphatic score. But in the first hour or so of the film, expanded from Lehane’s original short story “Animal Rescue,” they seem to be marking time, circling around their characters, stalking them, in a full-dress improv rehearsal.

All except for Gandolfini, who brings lumpen poetry to the sort of bottom-rung ganef Tony Soprano would have dispatched in a single episode. Fat and tired — the character, not the performance — Marv used to be a serious player in Brooklyn crime but, stripped of his bar ownership and living with his sibling Dottie (Ann Dowd), mourns that he’s become “a guy who goes to Europe with his sister.” He should live so long.

(READ: Mary Pols on Gandolfini’s next-to-last movie, Enough Said)

Eventually all the stars slip into their characters: Hardy, with a fretful, coiled power that hints at Bob’s unknown depths; Rapace, making the most of a conflicted-girlfriend role previously played by Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront), Talia Shire (Rocky), Maria Tommie (The Wrestler) and countless others; and especially Schoenaerts, who can impart madman menace in a whisper. With The Drop as with Shutter Island, you have to sit through the slow parts to savor the cool parts. The movie’s little surprise is that you didn’t waste your time watching it; you were just being primed for an explosion of low volume and high impact.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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