'The Sopranos' is widely regarded as one of the best TV series ever made. It won a ton of awards, including Peabody Awards for its first two seasons, 21 Primetime Emmy Awards, and five Golden Globe Awards. Set in the 1990s and 2000s, it focused on New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) - a middle-aged family man struggling to maintain his marriage, mental health, and criminal empire.
The series ended in 2007 and Gandolfini passed away in 2013 but, in a twist than not even Quasimodo could have predicted, the HBO-produced crime drama was rediscovered by Generation Z. Memes were created. Tweets were composed. A new streaming service, HBO Max, was launched. Bada boom bada bing ... suddenly we have 'The Many Saints of Newark', a prequel directed by Alan Taylor and written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner.
It opens with a gliding camera shot through a cemetery, where the voice of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) informs us that "Moltisanti is a religious name... and still I'm fucked." At first, it seems like Christopher will be an omnipresent narrator. Oddly, he only chimes in a couple of times during the film, which takes place during the 1960s and 1970s in Newark, New Jersey, with the 1967 Newark riots used as a backdrop for the tensions between the Italian-American and African-American communities.
The story centres on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola, 'The Art of Self-Defense'). He's a good-looking thug (and eventual father to Christopher) who is struggling to juggle his career as a mobster and his more humane impulses, such as coaching a baseball team of blind children. Dickie is adored by his impressionable nephew, Tony. "The little fat kid is my uncle, Tony Soprano. Well, we call him my uncle, by marriage. He choked me to death," Christopher's ghost informs us, helpfully. Tony is a bright child with an absentee father, Johnny Boy (played by Jon Bernthal, 'Fury') and a miserably anxious mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga, 'The Conjuring', with a huge prosthetic beak to make her look more like Nancy Marchand). As the film skips ahead in years and the boy becomes a teenager, Tony is portrayed by James Gandolfini's son, Michael. He's rather good in the part, too.
SWITCH: 'THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK' TRAILER 2
Other key players include Leslie Odom, Jr ('One Night in Miami') as one-time Moltisanti soldier turned gang leader Harold McBrayer, Michela de Rossi as Moltisanti's stepmother-turned-comare Giuseppina Bruno, and Ray Liotta ('No Sudden Move') as "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti. Liotta also plays his incarcerated twin brother Salvatore "Sally" Moltisanti, who might be a figment of Dickie's imagination and serves as his Dr Melfie-style confessor. Additionally, some good names take on some big roles, including Corey Stoll ('First Man') as Uncle Junior, John Magaro ('First Cow') as Silvio, and Billy-Magnussen ('Aladdin') as Paulie.
One of the reasons that 'The Sopranos' was so great to watch was that it was cast so perfectly. Many of the actors had previously appeared in small parts in 'Goodfellas' (27, in fact) and other mob movies. A lot of them were Italian Americans, several were former criminals, and the authenticity they brought to their roles made up for their limited acting range. For example, Tony Sirrico, who played Paulie Walnuts, had been arrested 28 times, including for disorderly conduct, assault, and robbery, before taking up acting. He was happy to accept a role on 'The Sopranos', as long as he wasn't playing a "rat".
'The Many Saints of Newark' is largely stocked with actorly actors and suffers for it. Like Farmiga's big fake nose, watching recognisable movie stars mimicking these iconic performances is distracting. Nivola does a more obvious James Gandolfini impression than even Gandolfini's own son, cocking his head and gesticulating with his index and pinkie fingers like Doctor Strange. Stoll recites Junior's signature catchphrase ("Your sister's cunt!") not once but twice, to diminishing returns. Magaro's performance as Silvio Dante (originally played by Steven Van Zandt) is basically a caricature of a caricature that would feel more at home in Christopher's autobiographical mafia horror film, 'Cleaver'. Even Ray Liotta, the star of 'Goodfellas', only turns in half a solid performance, overacting as "Hollywood Dick" but underplaying nicely as Salvatore.
Fans of 'The Sopranos' ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and David Chase served up egg noodles and ketchup.
In all fairness, it's not like the actors have the strongest material to work with. Terence Winter was the best writer that 'The Sopranos' ever had, working on the show from the second to the sixth and final season. His touch is absent here, but 'The Many Saints of Newark' is strangely akin to the gangster series that Winter later created, 'Boardwalk Empire', particularly in regards to its weaknesses. Certain characters and subplots feel unnecessary (a lot of time is devoted to Harold McBrayer, a hitherto unmentioned figure in 'The Sopranos' universe). It has a slew of familiar supporting characters with no idea how to use them properly (or enough). It also aims to be an expansive American origin story - looking back not only at the rough and tumble years of organised crime in New Jersey, but also a certain version of America as we know it - rather than a Tony Soprano origin movie.
As a whole, it lacks cohesion. Maybe it's because the basic idea for 'The Many Saints of Newark' came from a movie that David Chase had always wanted to make about the 1967 Newark riots. Just like adding too many chopped olives can spoil a spaghetti sauce, Chase and Konner sprinkle the latest draft of his script with so many fan service moments and callbacks to the TV series (like Johnny shooting through Livia's beehive) that it can't function as a standalone film. If you aren't already familiar with this universe, you'll have no idea what is going on.
Alan Taylor directed some of the best episodes of 'The Sopranos', but his last few movies have included some of the worst franchise extensions, like 'Thor: The Dark World' and 'Terminator Genisys'. It's weird to see this reverse Midas touch extend to the thing he made his career on (Taylor won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for 'The Sopranos' episode 'Kennedy and Heidi'). Under the lens of cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, Taylor's film looks surprisingly ugly, with oversaturated hues and digital colour correction making you feel like you're watching the action unfold through a pair of cheap sunglasses.
Fans of 'The Sopranos' ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and David Chase served up egg noodles and ketchup. 'The Many Saints of Newark' could have been an epic, serpentine film about not just one only-sometimes-compelling protagonist and his possibly imaginary uncle, but about the whole network of twisted figures who haunt the shadows of a country's history, who still tell us something intriguing and troubling about America's collective psyche. Instead, it's a crushing disappointment. Whadayagunnado?