From Firefly’s Serenity to The X-Files, big screen continuations of small screen series are nothing new. Even in recent years, we’ve been treated to notable feature film revivals of revered shows in the form of Downton Abbey, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie and Deadwood: The Movie. This time though, it’s legendary Emmy-winner David Chase who pulls us back into the world of his landmark HBO series The Sopranos. Debuting 22 years ago, the groundbreaking mob psychodrama practically invented the template for modern prestige television – with it’s cinematic camerawork, multi-layered characters, abstract visual metaphors, and nuanced depictions of family, gender roles, mental illness, and Italian-American culture.
It’s no exaggeration to say that The Sopranos was (and still remains) the crowning achievement of television as an artform. So naturally, any follow-up to the show’s towering legacy comes with unenviable expectations. Does this long-promised prequel live up to those expectations? Both yes and no. The Many Saints of Newark is undoubtedly a gripping origin story, a stylish period piece, and a lively old-fashioned gangster flick in the vein of Martin Scorsese. As co-written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, and directed by the series regular Alan Taylor, this film is sharply honed, darkly funny, ultra-violent and wildly entertaining. Yet, its limited scope does at times cut off Chase’s more sprawling storytelling instincts. One can’t help but wish that we could watch the episode after this.
The Many Saints of Newark rewinds to a pivotal historical moment that brought the Garden State to a boiling point. Set in the racially torn, titular New Jersey city back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Tony was just a teenager, the movie presents us with a crew of middle-class hoodlums who occupy the lower rungs of an Italian crime family. We primarily follow Dickie Moltisanti (Christopher’s father) as the film’s focal point. As played by Alessandro Nivola, Dickie is shrewd and smooth, yet edged with a frightening hair-trigger temper. The mafioso is also the “uncle” (though they’re not blood relatives) and mentor to young Tony, serving as the biggest influence for the complex mob boss he will one day become.
Dickie runs the criminal enterprises in the neighborhood but lives in the shadow of his intimidating, showboating father “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta in another gangster movie!), who has just returned to the States with his gorgeous Italian wife Guiseppina (Michela De Rossi). Other members of the crew include Corrado “Junior” Soprano (Corey Stoll), Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), Silvio Dante (John Magaro), Big Pussy (Samson Moekiola) and Tony’s father, “Johnny Boy” Soprano (Jon Bernthal), who is such a patriarchal tyrant that we finally understand how Tony’s mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga), turned into the hateful, spiteful misanthrope she became. For aficionados, watching a talented group of younger actors uncannily inhabiting the mannerisms, speech patterns and personas of these classic characters is sure to be a treat.
The most prominent casting, which could have been a failed stunt but actually works beautifully, has the late, great James Gandolfini’s son Michael portraying the teenage Tony Soprano, and what a finely calibrated performance it is. We see young Tony’s nascent forays into illegal activities; his tendency to explode in a furious rage; his high level of intelligence, and even an early “therapy session” in which Tony parries with a school counselor in a foreshadowing to his meetings with Dr. Melfi. There’s no sense that Michael is a doing karaoke version of his father’s iconic character, he actually finds ways to unveil new layers of Tony by perfectly embodying him as a confused youngster who attaches himself to Dickie in a desperate attempt at stability in a household ruled by emotional manipulation. Key to the film’s success is how deftly it establishes the world of violence and easy money to which he will ultimately be swayed.
In of itself, the extended family drama, hidden love triangles (Dickie takes a dangerous shine to his father’s new bride) and criminal workings of these gangsters is already Sopranos-level enthralling – filled with intense sequences, rich dialogue, superb acting and authentic dynamics. But their seedy inner world also blows up after operations are affected when the (real-life) 1967 Newark Race Riots erupt on the streets. Racial tensions between the Italian-American and African-American communities boil over, symbolized by Dickie’s conflict with hired gun Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.). When Harold sees horrific police brutality and rolling tanks in the streets, he takes the first step toward thinking that maybe the Sopranos shouldn’t be the only game in town.
The Many Saints of Newark unfolds as a character-driven epic that blends regional history and national tragedy, suppressed and struggling immigrant communities, crime and punishment, sex and violence, alongside pitch-black dark comedy and impecabbly tailored suits. Like The Sopranos, this film has more on it’s mind than a straightforward mob drama – touching on race, masculinity, blood ties, and the ways we either divide ourselves or are divided by forces larger than us. This thematic depth and artistic ambition is both the film’s greatest strength and it’s biggest weakness simply because the running time of a movie prevents Chase from exploring his ideas fully. In many ways, The Many Saints of Newark would have been more convincingly realized as a Better Call Saul-esque show.
In a vacuum, this film is a very good mob movie whose only flaw is spreading itself too thin. Fans of the series though will no doubt get a richer experience buoyed by resonant callbacks and insight into the environment that moulded a tragic, existentialist antihero. A great example involves “Down Neck,” an episode in season one that found Tony sifting through traumatic memories of seeing his father arrested. That flashback is reprised, recreated, and remixed here, with the Newark cast. It’s a key loss-of-innocence moment for young Tony that holds so much weight. Moments like that, or the ironic choice to have Christopher (Michael Imperoli) narrate the film from beyond the grave, will certainly be lost on newbies. Thus, appreciation of The Many Saints of Newark inevitably varies depending on whether you’ve seen the series or if you’re coming in cold.