Fourteen years after the screen went to black (I’m in the “Tony’s dead” camp!), The Sopranos returns with a prequel movie that unfortunately proves 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 backstories in two hours, and something about the whole enterprise feels wrong. As characters are introduced—some brand-new, some younger versions of characters we all know—none of them get the kind of focus that makes them worth your time.
There are multiple storylines and characters at play as the action begins in 1960s Newark, where race riots interrupt the flow of mafia business. Dickie, the father of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), 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/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—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 he’s 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 disappointing opening-weekend box office might signal an end to the franchise).
There’s some coolness in the movie relating to Sopranos 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, with Obi-Wan not knowing that the cute kid is going to kill him someday.
Corey Stoll steps in as a younger Junior Soprano, who at one point utters an easter-egg line involving varsity sports. 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 bit cartoonish. A teenage Carmela 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 it). Farmiga is making a habit out of playing evil dude moms in prequels. (She played Mrs. Bates, mother of Norman, in Bates Motel.)
A solid performance by Liotta and a surprise voice cameo aren’t enough to bring this one together. 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 may 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 the older Tony, and with James Gandolfini gone, it’s probably best to just let the story end.
The Many Saints of Newark is now playing at theaters across the valley, and is streaming on HBO Max.