Editor’s note: yes, the series is 20 years old, however mild plot spoilers are included in this review. If you’ve never seen “The Sopranos,” you’ve been warned.
“The Sopranos,” arguably one of the greatest television series in history, went out with a bit of a whimper (I loved the ending; others did not). But it certainly left everyone wanting more from the New Jersey crime family led by Tony Soprano (the late James Gandolfini). Instead of continuing the Soprano storyline, series creator David Chase (who co-wrote this film with Lawrence Konner) decided to look back at the teenage years of young Anthony Soprano, who we see as both a youngster and at high school age (played by Gandolfini’s real-life son, Michael). But to remind us of exactly what the potential price is for living in this world, the film opens with a tracking shot through a cemetery housing the graves of many a character killed off in the series, landing on the tombstone of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), who acts as our beyond-the-grave narrator, which seems wholly appropriate in this bloody world.
As fun as it is to see younger versions of such lively supporting players as Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), Pussy Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola), and Silvio Dante (John Magaro, complete with his clearly fake toupee), the real appeal of The Many Saints of Newark is meeting the generations that came before Tony was old enough to drive, let alone run a crime family. Young Tony always felt closer to his uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) than his own father, Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), despite the fact that being close to either was going to lead to Tony getting involved in organized crime in one fashion or another. All of these men work under the all-powerful DiMeo crime family, who have complete control over the city’s shady operations (gambling, merchandise falling off of trucks, protection money).
And few are more powerful or feared that Dickie’s father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), whom we meet when he returns home from a long vacation in Italy with a new Italian wife, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), in tow. Speaking of wives, the women in this film are the secret weapon of this crime family, no more so than Vera Farmiga’s portrayal of Tony’s long-suffering/insufferable mother Livia, who is so clearly unstable and manipulative I wish they’d made the entire movie about just her and the poor unfortunates who cross her path. In a film dedicated to showing us the elements that influenced young Tony, nothing quite gives us that like the character of Livia (who very much informed his adult life as well), and suddenly all of those years of therapy make sense.
The Many Saints of Newark also gives us a sense of the time (the 1960s-’70s) and place, including the Newark riots sparked by the police shooting of an unarmed Black man. The film does not spare us the inherent racism and sexism that is built into this world and the time period, much of which is filtered through Leslie Odom Jr.’s character, Harold McBrayer, who works for the DiMeo family covering the Black communities, with ambitions of starting his own organization to rival and perhaps loosen the hold of the Italians.
Chase and director Alan Taylor (who directed some of the best episodes of “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Mad Men,” but also helmed Thor: The Dark World and Terminator Genisys—you win some, you lose some) keep the fan service to a minimum and plow through several story threads that, like the series, work as both soap opera and crime drama. Every male character has both a wife and a girlfriend; people kill family members as readily as they kill rivals; and allegiances are formed and broken in unexpected ways. The film is as good as the episodes of the show, but certainly not better. Even though young Tony is a bit of a troublemaker, Gandolfini plays him primarily as an observer, listening and picking up tips on how to handle himself in life and business. Tony was also more even-tempered than his cohorts, and The Many Saints of Newark gives us a sense of why that’s true. There’s still a lot of real estate between where the film ends and the series begins (nothing about the movie feels final), so I genuinely hope Chase and his team decide to explore those avenues a bit more. If not, this is a great footnote to a meaningful, rich storytelling experience.
The film is playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
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