Fourteen years after the screen went to black (I’m in the Tony’s dead camp!), The Sopranos returns with a prequel movie that proves to be a miscalculation in continuing the franchise. It’s proof that, sometimes, it’s a little too hard to go back.
With The Sopranos TV series, viewers got used to storylines that could breathe and build with the comfort of multiple episodes and seasons. Guest actors, like Steve Buscemi, could bloom over many hours before getting shot in the face.
With The Many Saints of Newark, creator David Chase and company try to tell a bunch of Sopranos old history in two hours, and something about the whole enterprise feels wrong. Characters are introduced, some brand new and some younger versions of characters fans know. None of them get the kind of focus that makes them anything near worth your time.
There are multiple storylines and characters at play as the action begins in 1950s Newark, where race riots interrupt the flow of mafia business and Christopher Molisanti’s (Michael Imperioli) father is leading a troubled life. Alessandro Nivola portrays Dickie, Christopher’s dopey daddy, a fancy gangster whose own dad (Ray Liotta) brings home a beautiful wife from Italy.
The relationship between Dickie and his stepmom and eventual mistress, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) takes up the majority of the movie, and that’s the main problem with the film. There isn’t enough runway to make these characters sympathetic. For that matter, younger versions of Soprano favorites like Silvio, Paulie, Junior and, of course, the biggie, Tony Soprano, feel equally underdeveloped.
Young Tony Soprano (played by Michael Gandolfini, son of James, as a teen) idolizes his Uncle Dickie. Gandolfini is OK here, but probably not ready to truly carry a movie just yet, so Anthony/Tony is more of a supporting character. Saints feels like a warmup movie for him, with perhaps a meatier role featuring Anthony busting skulls in his 20s in a future chapter (although, the dismal box office for this chapter might signal an end to the franchise).
There’s some coolness in the movie relating to Soprano’s lore, like Anthony meeting crying-baby Christopher, who doesn’t seem to dig his uncle (and eventual killer) that much. It’s sort of the reverse of young Anakin (soon to be Darth Vader) meeting Obi-Wan in Star Wars: The Phantom
Menace, Obi-Wan not knowing that the cute kid is going to kill him someday.
Corey Stoll steps in as younger Junior Soprano, who at one point utters an easter egg line involving varsity sports. Comedic actor Billy Magnussen convincingly portrays a young Paulie Walnuts, with only subtle hints of the older Paulie’s eccentricities, a wise choice. John Magaro brings a little too much Stevie Van Zandt mugging to young Silvio Dante, who winds up being a little too cartoonish. A teenaged Carmella Soprano makes a blink and you’ll miss it appearance at a phone booth.
Vera Farmiga, saddled with a big prosthetic nose, plays Tony’s mom, Livia. There are some hints of the eventual total unpleasantness that will engulf Livia in the TV series, with Farmiga and Gandolfini sharing a couple of decent scenes (including a very good one involving a cheeseburger). The movie needed more scenes like that one. Farmiga is making a name for herself playing evil dude moms in prequels (She played Mrs. Bates, mother of psycho Norman, in Bates Motel).
A solid offering by Ray Liotta and a surprise voice cameo aren’t enough to bring this one together as a film worthy of a trip to the cinemas. Leslie Odom Jr. does decent enough work in a subplot that probably deserved its own movie rather than jockeying for time with the Soprano family.
Fans and non-fans alike are going to find The Many Saints of Newark underwhelming. Fourteen years is a long time to make people wait for a prequel. The story that really mattered belonged to older Tony, and with James Gandolfini gone, it’s probably best to just let the story end.