As an actor, James Gandolfini was never going to be able to fully escape Tony Soprano. It’s impossible to spend nearly a decade playing a character so beloved and familiar, you half expected him to walk out of your TV every Sunday night, shuffle his way to the nearest grill, and fire up a steak and a stogie. After The Sopranos’ 1999 premiere made Gandolfini an unlikely star, Hollywood seemed intent on drafting him as either a hothead or a heavy (or both) in films like The Lonely Hearts or The Man Who Wasn’t There.
But in his final years, Gandolfini — who died last summer at the age of 51 — turned in some of the most satisfyingly diverse performances of his post-Sopranos career: There was the seen-it-all military man of In the Loop; the shy, easily bruised divorcee of Enough Said; and, most ferociously, the debauched, demoralized hitman in Killing Them Softly. The latter is one of Gandolfini’s least seen performances, and also one of his most startling. In just a few scenes, he instills his character with astonishing levels of gluttony and glee — a man for whom every weekend is a lost one. Gandolfini was never destined for big-screen leading-man gigs, but he’d returned to the career for which he’d worked surely and steadily before The Sopranos: That of a reliable, resourceful character actor.
And yet, after all those years of sneaking away from his Sopranos image, Gandolfini returned to Tony’s turf in his final film, The Drop, which premiered Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival. As Marv, a crooked Brooklyn pub boss who’s lost control of both his bar and his bearings, Gandolfini plays up all the physical traits — the resigned exhales; the slow coffee slurps; the exhausted, top-heavy gait — that made Tony so indelible. Yet Marv is no Soprano. Instead, he’s a schlub who doesn’t know it, wielding whatever middling powers he might have over a quiet bartender (played by Tom Hardy) who long ago outgrew him, and plotting schemes he can no longer pull off. Gandolfini may once again be playing a thug in The Drop, but it’s a cowering, desperate one — a testament to the actor's ability to find nuance in every lowlife character.
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Because Gandolfini’s gone, it’s hard to ever fully lose yourself in The Drop — every time he appears on screen, gray-haired and glum, you feel a bittersweet tug that this is the last chance we’ll get to see him. But there’s also an appreciative joy in watching him return one final time to a life of crime.
Watch the trailer for The Drop below: