There had not been a production that came close to matching the brilliance of “The Godfather” – with its honor among thieves and dishonor among family – until “The Sopranos” launched in 1999. The David Chase series masterfully blended together the complexity of family with the morality void world of organized crime.
The TV series set such a high standard, the prospect of a feature film – even one that serves as a prequel – came with high concerns. There was only the potential of absolute success or absolute failure.
“The Many Saints of Newark” is without a doubt a complete success. It is the writing of Chase and a superb cast that make the new film work so well. It is currently in theaters but can be seen through the streaming service of HBO Max through the end of October.
This is the origin story of Anthony Soprano – played in the film by Michael Gandolfini, the son of the late James Gandolfi who played Tony Soprano in the TV series. He is growing up in a violent world being torn apart by the greed of organized crime and the turmoil of racial tensions.
Chase was smart not to make Tony Soprano the main focus as that would have limited the tale to youthful indiscretions and teen rebellion. Angst is no replacement for the terror of a real crime world.
Central to the story is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s uncle who becomes a father figure when Tony’s father, Johnny (Jon Bernthal), ends up in prison for most of Tony’s teenage years.
Moltisanti is a mirror image of the Tony Soprano that James Gandolfini would portray in the TV series. He is a man who acts like family is the most important thing in his life but in reality, he is a ticking time bomb of anger ready to lash out with only the least amount of provocation.
Chase creates emotional masks for Moltisanto to wear when he is dealing with people who are close to him. Nivola easily slips from the kind of caring person who seems to be concerned with his nephew’s future to a cold-blooded killer without pause.
And, the film is loaded with moments of violence both domestically and racially linked. All of these moments collectively explain what Tony Soprano became such a force to fear when he becomes an adult.
Chase has crafted the story in the same way he did the TV show. He shows how a darkness that envelops a family becomes a curse handed down through generations. It’s the contrast of that ever present evil with the attempts at a normal life that serves as the deep, dark core.
The fact Chase wrote and produced the film and Alan Taylor – who won an Emmy for directing episodes of “The Sopranos” – is the director translates into a seamless flow between the TV and movie projects. From the tension that is built around the dinner table to the chaotic gun battles in the street, there is not a single loss of quality.
That’s saying a lot considering “The Sopranos” picked up 21 Primetime Emmy Awards, five Golden Globe Awards and two Peabody Awards. It is considered one of the best – if not THE best TV show – to date.
The quality doesn’t stop with the writing and first-class direction. The film is loaded with standout performances including Vera Farmiga taking on the daunting task of playing Tony Soprano’s mother brought to life by Nancy Marshand in the TV series. Farmiga loses herself in the role so deeply it is as if she stripped away her own persona and locked it away in a closet while she brought the character to life.
Many of the actors had to deal with the challenge of taking on very familiar characters from the series. Both Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano and Billy Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts find that delicate line between making the role seem familiar but adding their own touches.
The only slight qualm is the ending. Chase showed with “The Sopranos” that not everything has to be wrapped up neatly. It’s just not clear with the end of the film whether that is the case with “The Many Saints of Newark” or there is a second film planned. It works either way.
There were no guarantees returning to the scene of so many crimes with “The Sopranos” would work. There were elements from Chase’s writing to the standout cast that pushed the odds toward favorable. In the end, the result is a product that equals the TV series in quality and proves a gift to those who know and love “The Sopranos.”
The Many Saints of Newark
Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michael Gandolfini, Billy Magnussen, Michela De Rossi, John Magaro, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga.
Director: Alan Taylor
Rated: R for violence, language, sexual content, nudity
Running time: 121 minutes.