By Elias Savada.
Brutal and deadly, as expected, and a fiercely written gangster drama, the film is also a fitting period piece….”
The best things about HBO’s The Sopranos were the deeply emotional heft of its characters and, of course, the brutality they constantly extracted upon one another. Fans of the long running cable series (1999-2007), who have been waiting for a big screen companion to their award-showing (Peabodys, Emmys, Golden Globes, oh my!) show, and now they have it with The Many Saints of Newark. While the untimely death of Sopranos star James Gandolfini in 2013 probably pushed any sequel aside, it’s now up to Gandolfini’s 19-year-old son, Michael, to fill the younger shoes of Tony Soprano, in this 1960s-1970s origins prequel.
Like father, like son.
Gandolfini fils, a budding albeit unproven actor, with a supporting role in Anthony and Joe Russo’s Cherry earlier this year, now steps warily into his father’s presumed teenaged character’s shoes. His even younger, 1967 version is briefly played by William Ludwig. As young Tony, he’s a criminal novice, one yet to learn the mafia ropes, but still an astute observer of the human condition, particularly when the script by series creator David Chase and Lawrence Konner (who penned three of the series’ episodes in its third and fourth seasons) turns violent. Chase turned over the director responsibilities to Alan Taylor, who directed some of The Sopranos‘ best episodes (The Knight in White Satin Armor and Kennedy and Heidi, among others). While he’s not helmed many theatrical features (and this is one of those Warner Bros. releases that is being hybridized in theaters and on HBO Max on opening day), his grasp of the subject is dead on.
Basically, the film is a commemoration of the ensemble work that the tv series so wonderfully embodied. While Gandolfini might get more glory than expected, he is only part of the larger show here. As a forerunner to the gangsters that were welcomed into viewers home every Sunday night, you’ll recognize some of the family names. Foremost is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), whose son Chris was a mainstay of the show (and gets an amusing graveyard cameo early in the film). Of course, the English translation of his surname is how the film earned its title. As Tony’s uncle and mentor, Dickie is part of the lead army for Tony’s father, ‘Johnny Boy’ Soprano (Jon Bernthal), whose brief stint in the slammer causes another family tiff. Branching out the family tree adds mafia titan “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, a fowl-mouthed, woman-beating patriarch, played to boorish delight by Ray Liotti. He’s Dickie’s dad, returning home from Italy with Giuseppina (Michael De Rossi), a beauty of a young, and all too innocent, bride. Moments later, dad’s offed and the “grieving” son dumps his wife and takes up with the “grieving” widow. Then Liotta’s back in the picture, as Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti, the imprisoned twin of “Hollywood Dick,” but as a much calmer, confessional soul. Yeah, there do appear to be many saints afoot.
Junior Soprano (a bespectacled Corey Stoll) is Johnny’s brother, who’s quietly working on his own agenda. When family isn’t duking it out with one another or with any perceived interlopers in their community, there’s some Oedipal complex baggage tossed in when you catch a glimpse of Vera Farmiga as Tony’s carping mother, Livia. She’s the spitting image (hair-wise, at the least) of Carmela, Tony’s wife in the series, as played by Edie Falco.
Admirers of the series will spot they-didn’t-change much youthful versions of Paulie Gualtieri (Billy Magnussen with a fake nose) and Silvio Dante (pompadoured John Magaro), but they’re just a passing reference to their larger television parts.
Looking at Newark in the late 1960s, the writers significantly play up the racial unrest that evolved into the riots that decimated part of the city’s downtown. Bringing aboard Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom, Jr. as Harold McBrayer, Dickie’s high school football teammate and former foot soldier in the Moltisanti family business. He’s anxious to hustle for his own piece of the city’s numbers action.
So, what if you’re not a fan of The Sopranos? It’s an easy standalone piece. Brutal and deadly, as expected, and a fiercely written gangster drama, the film is also a fitting period piece from the many songs on the soundtrack to the wonderful production design (Bob Shaw, who worked on the tv series for five seasons). Some of the film was shot in Newark (and other nearby towns), as well as on location in New York City. You’ll miss the series’ in-jokes, but love the goombahs. You won’t suffer…much.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).