Prequels like The Many Saints of Newark can be tricky to execute.
Premiering over 20 years, The Sopranos was one of the biggest television shows of all time. It managed to push the boundaries of what could be shown on TV, along with innovative storylines and memorable characters. Put all that together, guaranteed a fanbase will start forming.
This prequel film takes place decades before the TV show, following all the characters we know but younger – meaning new actors. Usually, I wouldn’t mind this because it’s better than the alternative of the old actors using CGI to de-age themselves.
Unfortunately, most of the principal Sopranos players just feel like impressions. Whose Corey Stoll playing? Well, he’s got the big glasses and bad back, so he’s obviously Junior Soprano. Whose John Magaro playing? Well, he’s sporting the iconic pompadour and head tilt, so he’s clearly supposed to be Silvio Dante. The film even opens with a narration by Michael Imperioli, semi-reprising his role of Christopher from the show.
While they’re not bad performances, it doesn’t feel as authentic as it should. The only one who feels like he’s not doing an impression is Michael Gandolfini, the late James Gandolfini’s son, who portrays a younger Tony Soprano. Every scene he’s in, you just look at him and say, “that’s a young Tony Soprano.” From his looks to his personality, it’s nearly uncanny.
Unfortunately, you might be disappointed if you hoped that this was an origin story for the character.
While Tony does play a part in this story, the plot mainly revolves around Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the father of Christopher Moltisanti, who finds himself involved in a gang war starting from the 1967 Newark riots. On the other side of the war is Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a new character who turned on his friends and accomplices to start his own crime syndicate.
One of the most significant issues I had with this film is that there was little effort to bring in a new fanbase. Much of the film feels geared towards those who watched the show way back, which is perfectly fine. However, if you don’t try to bring in a new audience, you’re not going to break much ground in the franchise.
Hence why a prequel like this is so difficult to execute. All the pieces are there; David Chase once again takes writing credit, many talented actors, and we explore a time in this story that’s yet to be told. Unfortunately, a lot of the actors feel very underutilized in their roles.
While it’s great to see Ray Liotta again doing his mobster shtick, it does feel manipulative upon discovering he’s not in the film very long. Almost as the filmmakers were trying to relive the glory days of Goodfellas.
Vera Farmiga disappears into the role of Tony’s mother Livia flawlessly but isn’t given much screen time. Charismatic tough guy Jon Bernthal, portraying Tony’s father, is given even fewer scenes. I dare say that you could’ve cut Tony’s dad from this story and miss absolutely nothing.
Even Leslie Odom Jr.’s “villain” character doesn’t get as much screen time as he should, which is weird because you’d think the audience would want to get to know a character like this.
While the actors are giving it their all, and the effort is appreciated to bring new life to a beloved TV show, this just feels like a missed opportunity. There are talks that a sequel might be in the works, and if that’s the case, hopefully they can make the most of their second chance.