(Warning: This review contains mild spoilers.)
When The Sopranos went off the air in 2007, many of the show's fans were hopeful that the ambiguous ending would provide an opening for a reunion of some sort down the road. Those hopes seemed to vanish when powerhouse star James Gandolfini died in 2013. How could you possibly revisit this world without Tony Soprano himself? Creator David Chase appeared prepared to walk away from this story for good. However, he eventually decided to revisit it with the prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, which is now in theaters and also streaming on HBO Max until October 31. The result is a mixed bag. It's fun to see the early days of the beloved characters, but the movie doesn't quite click as well as it could.
Set in New Jersey in the late 1960's, the lead character in The Many Saints of Newark is actually Dickie Moltisanti, played by Alessandro Nivola. Dickie, who was always referred to in the show as "Tony's uncle by marriage," was already dead when the series began, so now viewers get the chance to learn more about Christopher Moltisanti's father. He has a complicated life - attracted to his father's new wife, trying to be a good role model for a young Tony Soprano, and dealing with a rebellion from former associate Harold McBrayer (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) Fans know his fate from the beginning, but there's plenty to learn about how he ended there. Watching his relationship with Tony makes Tony's eventual killing of Christopher all the more tragic.
Of course, one of the major treats of the movie is seeing younger versions of the characters we know so well. The supporting cast is generally strong across the board, but these folks are the major highlights:
- Vera Farmiga as Livia Soprano. Farmigia's version of Tony's mother is just as tortured as Nancy Marchand's portrayal. She's a miserable woman who disparages everyone around her (a common trait in the Soprano family.) There's a crack in the armor for 30 seconds, where you see how things could have been different, but it's gone almost as soon as it appears. Farmiga's makeup also makes her look like a spitting image of Edie Falco, who played Carmela Soprano on the show, and that doesn't feel like a coincidence.
- Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano. Stoll nails Junior's mannerisms perfectly and makes it seem like the guy was already 90 years old in 1967.
- Jon Bernthal as Johnny Soprano. This version of Tony's dad doesn't seem quite as warm as how he was portrayed on TV, but that speaks to Tony's rose-colored view of his father for most of his time in therapy.
- Ray Liotta plays two different characters, but it makes sense in the context of the story. It's not that either character is particularly engrossing, but it's a kick to see Liotta back in another mob story.
Then we have Michael Gandolfini.
This was the biggest question we had about the movie: Would Michael, who has a thin acting resume so far, be able to hold his own stepping into his actual father's shoes as the iconic Tony Soprano? Turns out - he nails it. Watching him as a young Tony is a haunting experience. Of course he looks like his dad, but he also has Tony down pat. We see the temper, as well as the little kid in the big body who wants to be better. Hats off to Michael for delivering the goods and then some. Keep an eye on him in the future.
The biggest problem with The Many Saints of Newark is that it's really three different stories in one movie. There's Dickie Moltisanti's arc, his relationship with Tony, and the issue of racial conflicts during that time period. All of them are interesting, but none of them get enough time to fully develop, and they all feel unresolved by the end. It might have been better for this to have been a mini-series on HBO, so they could all be fleshed out more.
It's hard to judge the movie strictly in a vacuum. There are scenes and sequences that invoke The Godfather and Goodfellas, as well as the entire thing being a supplement for the TV show. It also probably works a hair better on the big screen, rather than watching it on HBO Max (which is how we viewed it.) However, in the end, The Many Saints of Newark is still an entertaining trip back in time, even if it doesn't fit together as well as it could. Fans won't be disappointed, as long as they know going into it that Tony is not the focal point.
Tony Soprano and Dickie Moultisanti "back in the day." (pic via imdb.com)
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