THE STORY – Young Anthony Soprano is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark, N.J., history, becoming a man just as rival gangsters start to rise up and challenge the all-powerful DiMeo crime family. Caught up in the changing times is the uncle he idolizes, Dickie Moltisanti, whose influence over his nephew will help shape the impressionable teenager into the all-powerful mob boss, Tony Soprano.
THE CAST – Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Billy Magnussen, Michela De Rossi, John Magaro, Samson Moeakiola, Alexandra Intrator, Joey Diaz & Nick Vallelonga
THE TEAM – Alan Taylor (Director), David Chase & Lawrence Konner (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
David Chase’s mega-hit television show “The Sopranos” was a cultural phenomenon that changed the course of television history forever. Winning a total of 21 Primetime Emmy Awards and turning many of its stars into one might say “made” names, it re-defined how audiences saw the crime genre up until that point. What felt like “Goodfellas” the TV show, became something more as we became enthralled in not just the criminal life of Tony Soprano (played by the late great James Gandolfini) but his personal life as well. A prequel has been long in development since the original show’s run ended in 2007, and now, we finally have the story of how Tony Soprano rose to power…I’m sorry. Despite the film’s marketing, that’s actually not what “The Many Saints Of Newark” is about at all. Writers David Chase and Lawrence Konner, along with director Alan Taylor (who directed nine episodes of “The Sopranos”), have decided to tell a different story with their prequel film. A story that Chase has been urging moviegoers to see on the big screen but might not be entirely necessary given the film’s day and date premiere on HBO Max and its overall level of quality.
“The Many Saints Of Newark,” tells the story of Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola), who you might remember is the father of Christopher Moltisanti. And if you don’t, the opening shot of “The Many Saints Of Newark” starts on a graveyard of past characters, voiceovers from the HBO show, and ends on the headstone of Christopher’s gravesite. His voice enters through the speakers and establishes him as our unnecessary narrator for the film from beyond the grave. It’s one of many desperate winks and a nod to the television show which Chase, Taylor, and Konner try to weave into the film to give it some level of familiarity and connectivity to the series. Still, it fails to do so in a convincing manner as this theatrical film lacks the polish and narrative cohesiveness to elevate it above the level of where it should’ve been to begin with, as a made-for-TV movie.
Back to Dickie though, he’s a good man – or at least he wants to believe he’s a good man. We see his close ties with other characters throughout the film, including Corrado “Junior” Soprano Jr. (Corey Stoll), Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (a fun but under-utilized Billy Magnussen), Giovanni “Johnny Boy” Soprano (Jon Bernthal), his wife Livia Soprano (Vera Farmiga with an exaggerated accent) and most importantly their son Anthony “Tony” Soprano (played by James Gandolfini’s real-life son Michael Gandolfini). The story more so depicts the fall of Dickie rather than his rise to power as the story starts with him already a prominent gangster with his own operation. However, we do see the beginnings of his relationship with his stepmom, Giuseppina Bruno (a beautiful Michela De Rossi), who is trapped in a terrible relationship with his abusive father, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (an over-the-top Ray Liotta). The era in which the film takes place is during the 1967 Newark race riots, when racial tensions were rising in the streets at an all-time high. This brings in Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a former runner for Dickie who is now making power moves of his own against his former friend to set up his own operation. The resulting rivalry brings nothing but murder, blood, and torment as Tony Soprano watches the man he idolizes, his loving uncle, slip farther into despair.
There are many characters, plot points, and time to cover in “The Many Saints Of Newark.” Given the right amount of time, Alan Taylor has proven that he can string together a series of episodes together to create a compelling narrative. The same cannot be said for this feature-length story, as Taylor fails to establish a throughline early on, connecting the various characters and scenes to give us any kind of a window into why we should care about the story being told. The reason for this is because most people will be flocking to see Michael Gandolfini play Tony Soprano, but unfortunately, he does not show up until thirty minutes into the movie, and when he does, he’s still treated as a side supporting character with little bearing on the plot. It also doesn’t help that even though the intentions were right, Michael Gandolfini can’t measure up to what his father could effectively portray on screen. It’s not his fault that many of his scenes come across as wooden and lifeless. It’s stunt casting which is neither helped by the directing or the script.
To his credit, Alessandro Nivola is charming, charismatic, and surprisingly unmerciful when pushed towards his emotional breaking point as Dickie. He more than carries the film on his back, venturing to create a complex character in a short amount of time that is worth following, even when the movie around him is more concerned with reminding us of why we loved “The Sopranos” in the first place instead of setting up this new character and his own struggles both with business and with family. He almost makes “The Many Saints Of Newark” a worthy companion piece to “The Sopranos” on the strength of his performance alone but questionable writing choices, which leads him down a darker path, calls into question our sympathy for him, making us wonder if we should’ve been following the story from Tony’s point of view this entire time. Not even Dickie’s conflict with Harold is developed properly as their friendship turned rivalry happens too quickly with little to no explanation as to why it’s happening in the first place.
Far too much of the screen time is spent on individual character moments, laughs, and nods to the series, which don’t add anything to the story this particular film is trying to tell and is instead desperately attempting to capture a magical feeling which remains elusive due to horrendously confusing editing, and no substantive character arcs with an abrupt ending. The heart of “The Sopranos” was its characters, their interactions with each other, and the small moments they shared with one another. Taylor’s film contains the kind of mobster violence one would expect from a movie such as this: brutal power drill interrogations, CGI fire deaths, and chaotic shootouts in the street. However, none of these violent jolts of excitement are ever able to mesh well with the film’s strived focus on the characters we know and love because the story is too scattershot to allow us to care. Only those who have a deep appreciation for “The Sopranos” and are overly excited to see some of these characters back on screen again will find anything to enjoy here. There’s one point in the movie where Dickie visits his Uncle Sally (Hollywood Dick’s brother, also played by Ray Liotta, but much more subdued this time around) in prison to atone for his sins, seek help and advice from the man who is serving a life sentence for murder. Sally tells him, “Life is pain. Pain is caused by wanting things.” Well, we wanted a prequel to “The Sopranos,” and this is what we got.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Alessandro Nivola delivers a captivating and complex performance as Dickie Moltisanti. It’s nice to see these characters on screen again, even if they’re being played by different actors.
THE OSCARS – None