Michaël R. Roskam directed the Oscar-nominated, foreign-language film Bullhead. It was a great, Belgium crime drama that explored an illegal organization not often explored with a really compelling protagonist in the center with better realized side characters. It was well photographed with striking visuals and interesting camera work. It somehow managed to be fresh and shocking, delving into issues of masculinity in bold ways. This film tries to be the same, treads on similar ground or hits familiar beats to that one, except it's ultimately weaker across the board. It's like a watered-down version of Bullhead.
Tom Hardy (Inception and The Dark Knight Rises) stars as Bob Saginowsky, a bartender at a Brooklyn bar that has become a repository for the money of mobsters. The bar acts like an underground bank or holding spot for dirty cash. The bar is run by Bob's older cousin Marv, played by James Gandolfini in his final film performance, but Bob is Marv's right hand.
One night, on his way home, Bob finds a pit bull puppy in a trash can. The trash can is in front of the home of Nadia, a waitress, played by Noomi Rapace (The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and Prometheus). The puppy is bruised and bleeding. At first, Bob doesn't know what to do with the puppy, but Nadia pushes him to nursing it back to health.
Even though the inciting incident is the bar being robbed of its drug money, much like Killing Them Softly (2012), that incident is only incidental. It almost rises to the point of not mattering. It gives Gandolfini something to do, but the robbery ultimately is swept away.
The true center is Bob's care for the dog, which he names Rocco, as well as his budding romance with Nadia. Yet, all through this film, something is off about Bob. He seems somewhat anti-social or at least socially awkward. Despite looking like he's in his late twenties and early thirties, he seems to have no idea how to talk nor woo a woman.
To Nadia, this might be adorable, especially when Bob is holding the cute puppy, making him cuter than he already is. Yet, the writer Dennis Lehane, adapting his own short story, doesn't do much to build the relationship between the two. They don't really talk. It comes as a bit of a surprise when Nadia's ex-boyfriend and ex-con Eric Deeds, played by Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead and Rust and Bone), shows up and is the true owner of the dog.
Eric is just ridiculous and crazy. He is perhaps the least nuanced and least sane character that Schoenaerts has played. As such, his fate is pretty obvious. It's practically the same fate as Schoenaerts' previous, English-language character in Blood Ties. Yet, Eric's struggle with Bob is all over a dog, and it's simply silly.
The real stakes are the thousands of dollars stolen in the inciting incident, but that becomes even lower than an undercurrent. Ostensibly, Bob is all about the dog. The money wasn't a concern for him, and while he comes across as a nice guy, as the film goes along, it becomes clear that something is bubbling underneath his surface.
When increasing threats from Chechen mobsters become apparent with blood and severed limbs popping up, Bob remains cool, calm and unaffected. One wonders how he could be so collected or seemingly naive to the danger and weirdness. Then, it's explained in an explosive moment.
The final scene then has Nadia make a choice about the explosion she's witnessed and her decision undermines her character. She basically makes the choice to love the bomb. Yes, in this case, Bob is the bomb, and there's no real reason why she chooses him. Perhaps, it's because he was nice to a dog. Well, Hitler was supposedly nice to his dog.
Two Stars out of Five. Rated R for some strong violence and pervasive language. Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.