Creator David Chase returns once more to the brutal world of ‘The Sopranos’ with this stylish and thrilling mob soap opera prequel.
Fourteen years on from the incredible, divisive, and hugely influential cultural event that was the finale episode of The Sopranos, the new prequel film The Many Saints of Newark has arrived. With the show’s visionary creator David Chase on writing duty, and Alan Taylor, one of the most frequently used directors on the show in the directing driving seat, one expects The Many Saints of Newark to capture the engrossing allure of the original show. Set in the late sixties within Newark, New Jersey, and with violent tensions rising from all sides after a series of brutal police attacks lead to chaotic riots, the film digs deeper into the previous generation of the mob melodrama.
The biggest point of discussion since this project was announced has always been that Michael Gandolfini would be depicting a younger teenage version of his late father James’ most iconic role. Many Saints of Newark has been widely sold as and marketed as a Tony Soprano origin story, which it really isn’t at all. He’s lurking on the edge of many scenes for the first half of the movie. Then the film’s frantic finale tries to shoehorn in some kind of justification and explanation as to how the film’s events will go on to shape the man we know so well from the TV show. The young Gandolfini is excellent despite little previous acting experience. There are moments where a subtle head tilt or a particular line delivery feels so frighteningly identical to his father that it is truly gasp inducing.
Contrary to the misleading marketing campaign, this is really the story of Dickie Moltisanti, the uncle to Tony Soprano and father to Christopher (Michael Imperioli’s character from the original show), and who’s legendary presence hangs over The Sopranos despite being set after his passing. Moltisanti literally translates as ‘many saints’ from the film’s title. He is the most influential and important figure in Tony’s life and is credited with shaping Tony into eventually becoming one of the most iconic and ruthless mob bosses ever seen on screen. Alessandro Nivola plays Dickie exceptionally and is a charismatic likeable presence despite the shocking acts of violence he frequently carries out.
The film often struggles to decide which story it wants to tell, as there are three key narrative strands competing for attention throughout. The story of young Tony is not really centralised until the film’s climax, and the historical Newark elements are fascinating yet they distract from the toxic melodrama of the Dickie Moltisanti narrative. Over an entire prequel series these could all have been fleshed out in a less convoluted way, whilst also allowing for even more fan service, which the film does mostly nail. The most frustrating thing about the film is that it leaves you wanting more because of everything it does so well. We have previously viewed this story over the course of hours and hours of world building; why can’t we have the same here?
The performances on show here are all excellent, and the difficult task of casting younger versions of such beloved characters is handled pretty masterfully. Vera Farmiga as Tony’s mother Livia is extraordinary, and the couple of key scenes she shares with Michael Gandolfini are a wonderful showcase of Chase’s writing, whilst adding real emotional depth to the troubled relationship that the pair had in the show’s early seasons. Jon Bernthal is electric as Tony’s formidable father Johnny Soprano, and arguably deserved more screen time. The motley crew of supporting gangsters in this crazy dysfunctional family all crop up on the periphery, such as Billy Magnussen as the fan favourite Paulie Walnuts, and John Magaro as Silvio, in a fully dialled-up, pantomime-like mobster performance.
The cast list is utterly stacked with talent, and as a result an actor as exceptional as Corey Stoll portraying Junior Soprano is limited to barely minutes of screen time, which he still makes the absolute most of. Lesley Odom Jr also further enhances his growing reputation as one of Hollywood’s most trustworthy talents. Ray Liotta also gives maybe his best performance since Goodfellas, back on familiar grounds as the vicious gangster Hollywood Dick Moltisanti.
Unfortunately, the story will almost certainly confuse newcomers, as well as spoiling one of the most dramatic twists in the series within two minutes of the film, through a bafflingly pointless narrative framing device.
This is a fantastic addition to the universe and legacy of The Sopranos. However, it does absolutely requires you to have seen the entirety of the show in order to get the most out of it. The Many Saints of Newark expands the mythology of the show while also providing a fascinating insight into the tumultuous period of Newark riots of the late 60s. Fans will be deeply satisfied, but perhaps this could’ve been even better as a ten-episode prequel series?
Words By Ed Budds
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