Hard to believe it’s been 22 years since “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO and became a major factor in ushering in the Platinum Age of Television and a dominant player in the pop culture conversation for years — all the way through that controversial, polarizing and (to my mind) brilliant finale in 2007.
Following in the tradition of feature-length prequels and sequels such as “Deadwood: The Movie” and “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” and the “Veronica Mars” film and the “Sex and the City” theatrical franchise and I bet you’ve forgotten about “Entourage: the Movie,” we have the keenly anticipated “Sopranos” origins story “The Many Saints of Newark.” It’s a sharply honed, darkly funny, ultra-violent and wildly entertaining late 1960s period piece about the making of future made man Tony Soprano, the early criminal escapades of many key characters from the HBO series — and the blood oaths and ruthless betrayals that would set the checkered table for virtually everything that would happen to the Sopranos, their extended family and their associates some three decades later.
Do you have to be a “Sopranos” veteran to appreciate “The Many Saints of Newark”? Even if you’ve never seen a single episode, director Alan Taylor (working with characters and a story created by showrunner David Chase) has delivered a gritty gem filled with stunningly intense sequences, rich dialogue, memorable characters and a real feel for the changing times and racial tensions of the Newark (and the America) of the late 1960s. However, if you ARE an aficionado of the series, it will be a far more enriching experience, as you witness a talented group of younger generation actors inhabiting the mannerisms, speech patterns and personas of classic characters such as Corrado “Junior” Soprano (played by Corey Stoll here), Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), Silvio Dante (John Magaro), Big Pussy (Samson Moekiola) and Tony’s mother Livia (Vera Farmiga), who was already a living nightmare by this time and would only get worse.
The most prominent casting, which could have been a failed stunt but actually works beautifully, has the late James Gandolfini’s real-life son Michael portraying the teenage Tony Soprano, and what a finely calibrated and authentic performance it is, as we see young Tony’s nascent and relatively harmless forays into illegal activities; his tendency to explode in a furious rage; his high level of intelligence, and even an early “therapy session” in which Tony parries with a school counselor in a foreshadowing to his meetings with Dr. Melfi.
However, the dominant central character in “Many Saints” is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father of Christopher (Michael Imperioli narrates this story from the grave), and cousin to Carmela Soprano and non-blood relative “uncle” and mentor to young Tony — especially during the years when Tony’s father, Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), is doing time. Dickie is a smooth and handsome charmer who’s running the numbers and other criminal enterprises in the neighborhood but still lives in the shadow of his larger-than-life, intimidating and grotesquely showboating father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, yes!), who has just returned to the States with his movie-star gorgeous young wife Guiseppina (Michela De Rossi), and from the moment Dickie and Guiseppina lock eyes across the dinner table, we know we’ve got trouble, trouble in Newark City. (Liotta also plays Hollywood Dick’s twin brother Sal Moltisanti, who’s in prison for murdering a made man, and yes, sometimes it’s a bit difficult to track all the players without a scorecard.)
As much as the core group of gangsters, gunmen, numbers runners, enforcers and thieves would like to stick to their own closed-off world, Dickie and his crew can’t ignore the fires raging in the streets of Newark, as Black protesters march on the police station, riots break out in the street and entire blocks are going up in flames. Dickie is also contending with former underling Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), who is embracing the revolution from the criminal’s standpoint; he’s establishing his own fiefdom, and he won’t hesitate to go after the old-school mobsters with guns blazing.
There’s a LOT packed into this story, and not everything works. (A love triangle emerges seemingly out of nowhere and seems to exist only to illustrate Dickie’s penchant for snuffing out anyone who betrays him or disappoints him.) But far more often, “The Many Saints of Newark” is an immensely satisfying companion piece to “The Sopranos,” filled with fascinating 1.0 versions of all those great characters, eerily prescient glimpses of the man Tony Soprano will become, and so many sequences that will have a special resonance to longtime fans of the show. There’s a moment when a major character from the series has a brief cameo, and winds up knocked to the ground, and you want to yell at this person to get up and run away and never look back, and avoid the life destined for them, but as we know far too well, everyone in “The Many Saints of Newark” has already had their destiny sealed.