More than a decade after it ended, The Sopranos still holds up as the definitive drama series about mob life. The Sopranos themselves also remain one of the most iconic families in television. Does The Many Saints of Newark reach the same heights as its groundbreaking predecessor? No, but you can’t fairly compare a two-hour film to an 86-episode series. As a standalone entity, director Alan Taylor has crafted a compelling prequel that’s equal parts crime drama and family drama. As an extension of The Sopranos lore, it’s a more than satisfying experience that honors the series without overdosing on fan service.
The Sopranos was always a cinematic show, setting the standard for the current golden age of television. The franchise effortlessly transitions to the big screen, immersing the audience in the 1967 Newark riots. A Black man can’t drive his taxi without getting pulled over by the cops, but a white man can drive with a dead body in the passenger’s seat without arousing suspicions from the Natural Guard. The film not only paints a haunting portrait of racial tensions, but the untouchable nature of being a gangster. Even an Army recruit office can be shot up with no repercussions. As a gang war erupts between the local Italian-Americans and African-Americans, a young Tony Soprano contemplates what kind of man he wants to be.
William Ludwig plays Tony as a child, but Michael Gandolfini’s portrayal as a high school Tony has been the film’s primary selling out. The late James Gandolfini’s son, he was literally born for this role. Much like the film and show, you can’t objectively compare James and Michael. The elder Gandolfini played the character for several years and already had years of acting experience under his belt. Michael is new to the role and fairly new to acting, but the audience has no trouble believing him as a teenage Tony. He looks the part and captures his father’s mannerisms while bringing a reckless naivety you’d expect from a younger version of this character.
The real star of The Many Saints of Newark is Tony’s uncle, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Although mentioned throughout the series, this is our first true exposure to who Dickie was and how he shaped Tony into the mobster/family man we know. Michael Imperioli’s Christopher serves as a narrator, which is appropriate given his links to Dickie and Tony. Dickie was more of a parent to Tony than his own father, played here by Jon Benthal. Christopher barely knew his father, but Tony would take his nephew under his wing. Of course, we all know how Tony’s relationship with Christopher ended. Seeing Tony’s relationship with Dickie adds another layer to that dynamic, in some ways making Christopher’s fate even more tragic.
Like a Sopranos episode, The Many Saints of Newark can be slow at times, which makes it all the more shocking when someone suddenly dies. Being a prequel, we have an idea of who will survive. Yet, Sopranoscreator David Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner still play with our expectations. A key example is a jaw-dropping car ride involving Tony’s father and mother, exquisitely played by Vera Farmiga. The casting is mostly spot-on with Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano and Billy Magnussen as Paulie. The film also makes way for welcomed newcomers like Leslie Odom Jr. as a rival named Harold McBrayer and Ray Liotta in a duel performance. Naturally, they had to get at least one Goodfellas actor in there.
The Many Saints of Newark might not go down as one of the all-time greatest mob movies. However, it is a worthy chapter to one of the best mob franchises. Chase has voiced enthusiasm about doing a sequel, but the film would also be a solid launching point for a series. Although we know how Tony’s story ends (kind of), there’s much more about his past that can be dissected. In any case, The Many Saints of Newark is the perfect way to cap off the Sopranos marathon you likely had in preparation.