Once upon a time, HBO was a little cable channel where you went to watch films. Then they started branching into original programming, becoming something else entirely. One of the first series that put HBO on the map was The Sopranos, a mob-drama that debuted in January 1999. Hailing from David Chase, the series spanned six seasons, 86 episodes and eight years before signing off in June 2007.
The series centered on a New Jersey crime family led by Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). It remains a popular series with fans more than a decade after its last episode and helped make stars of Gandolfini and Chase. Now, Chase is back with another story set in that world. While Gandolfini is gone, his son, Michael, has taken up the mantle in a new film that offers some insight into how Tony Soprano became the underworld leader we saw in the series.
The Many Saints of Newark throws the action back to the 1960s and 1970s, a turbulent time for New Jersey as for the rest of the world. It sees a young Tony (William Ludwig in hour one and Michael Ganolfini in hour two), who has a close relationship with his uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). While Dickie is more of a focus of the film, it’s his relationship with Tony and the rest of the family that is the heart of the story it wants to tell.
The cast includes Vera Farmiga and Jon Bernthal as Tony’s parents, Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano and Ray Liotta in a dual role as twins, one of whom is Dickie’s father. It also stars Leslie Odom, Jr., as the bulk of the narrative plays off the race riots in 1967 and the tensions between the Italian American and African American communities.
The film was written and directed by Chase and serves to whet the appetite for those who want more time in the Sopranos’ world. It’s meant to tell a story that looks at the foundation for the relationship between Tony and Christopher (Michael Imperioli), who narrates the film and was a big piece of the show.
Much of the film focuses on Nivola, who does a nice job in the lead role. While much was made of Michael Gandolfini stepping into the role made famous by his father, it’s a role that is fairly minor in terms of the major beats of the film.
The cast does a nice job bringing the story to life, and as someone who didn’t watch the original series I felt it was accessible enough as a stand-alone story. It made me curious to see how things go in the series—though I would note if you’ve not seen The Sopranos a big piece of the plot of the show is given away in the narration of the film. The action and the settings work and there are some interesting moments as the film tries to tell its own unique story while also hitting enough beats to excite fans of the show that want to learn more about Tony Soprano.
The ending felt abrupt but worked OK. Overall, it was an entertaining and at times engrossing drama that falls short of feeling compelling or groundbreaking. It works best as a companion piece to the existing series.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.