The allure of The Sopranos is still strong, most of us are still reeling from the “did he or did he not” ending, and all of us are still enamoured by its charm, wit, memorable characters, and the heinous violence throughout. Well, here we finally have that something that is supposed to keep our lips wet and our neediness cured, The Many Saints of Newark – which explores the life and upbringing of a young Tony Soprano – might not appease a lot of die hard fans, but as one myself, I thought it to be a very enjoyable – albeit very different – origin story about this fictional New Jersey mob we all fell in love with.
Written by David Chase (writer of The Sopranos) and directed by frequent collaborator Alan Taylor, suggests that it was in safe hands. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t hold a candle to the series; most of the mobsters felt like caricatures of their series counterparts, nowhere near as menacing or as serious. Saying that, Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti and Vera Farmiga as Livia Soprano were both excellent – the former offering the performance of his career. Farmiga captured Livia’s wickedness so well, encapsulating everything that made her such a hated character in The Sopranos; the voice, the look, the beehive bonnet (which leads to the infamous shooting that real fans will love to see). Nivola himself was allowed to explore a character that was only talked about in the show, basically having a blank canvas where he could paint whatever he wanted, which he did with great energy.
I may be alone on this, but I enjoyed the fact that Tony Soprano wasn’t the main character, he was a very minor character in a story that is much bigger than him at that time – the New Jersey mob doesn’t start with this young boy – and it was cool to see where he learnt his personality traits. Michael Gandolfini was excellent at playing a younger version of the character that his dad made famous, portraying him with an inquisitiveness and a slight naivety, just on the border of a life of crime but still possessing a child’s innocence.
The Many Saints of Newark follows the life of Dickie Moltisanti (father of Christopher), a troubled but efficient mobster (sounds familiar) who takes a young Tony under his wing and tries to guide him through a very tumultuous time in the history of Newark, as rival gangsters try to usurp the DiMeo crime family. Dickie attempts to juggle his mafia responsibilities, his family life, and his bit on the side (you need a good goomar storyline or this isn’t the mob), all with varying degrees of success and a lot of bloodshed.
Dickie runs a crew in the DiMeo crime family, which is headed by the notorious “Johnny Boy” Soprano (Jon Bernthal) and his brother “Junior” Soprano (Corey Stoll). Along for the ride is Dickie’s father “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, who also plays the characters twin brother “Sally”), as well as familiar faces like, Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri (Bill Magnussen), Silvio Dante (John Magaro), and “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola). This brings to me the thing that really bugged me as a fan of the show, the casting and portrayal of these latter characters just felt wrong, Silvio and Pussy are supposed to be the same age as Tony, and Paulie is older than them all – a lot older – it just didn’t add up. Chase should have left these figures out and used more prominent guys from the time. These characters wouldn’t have been high ranking soldiers at that time either, I get the need to involve them due to their popularity, but the way it was done seemed like a very odd decision.
I fully support the decision to make The Many Saints of Newark different from the show, which is why I entered it with an open mind (more people should), and it did a stellar job of following a character we only know from hearsay and showing how his bond with Tony was a contributing factor in shaping him into the future boss. Some fans were always going to receive it negatively because it isn’t the show, but to recreate such an iconic series in 2 hours is basically impossible.
It shared in the show’s violence and even in its humour – Uncle Junior’s comments about how Tony’s varsity athletic chances were of particular joy. If you go into this film expecting a pure prequel then you will be disappointed, enter it with an acceptance for new developments, new stories, and different subplots, and you will be pleasantly surprised. Give it a chance anyway because it’s a mighty fine gangster flick in its own right.