Tony Soprano meets 1967 unrest in 'The Many Saints of Newark'

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune

“I try to be good,” says Tony Soprano, Catholic high school slacker, numbers-racket enthusiast and future mob boss in “The Many Saints of Newark.” Does he mean it? How hard is he trying? Does anyone in his world, his family, his middle-class gangster society, see much value beyond appearances in trying?

These questions, among many, made the six seasons of “The Sopranos” all it was. An exquisite character dissection of a killer in torment; a richly comic nightmare of domesticity amid underworld morality; a gangster classic embracing the rewards and the costs of “my way” American entrepreneurship; and a worthy addition to the pantheon occupied, by force and violence, by the original “Scarface,” the first two “Godfather” pictures, “Goodfellas” and a fistful of others.

The movie is a prequel, looking at the formation and destiny of young Tony, played by Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini. He doesn’t dominate the storyline the way you might expect, in a tightly packed, slightly rushed standalone designed for the big screen but coming out this Friday in theaters simultaneously with its HBO Max streaming date.

Michael Gandolfini, left, and Alessandro Nivola star in "The Many Saints of Newark." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movie 13 and Hanover Movies 16 and on HBO Max.

It’s a “Sopranos” offshoot designed for those who wanted more from this world and from creator David Chase, who co-wrote the “Many Saints of Newark” script with “Sopranos” alum Lawrence Konner. Another series veteran, Alan Taylor, directed it. It’s worth seeing, for the gathering pathos of the central relationship between Tony and his beloved, fatally flawed father figure: “Uncle” Dickie Moltisanti, stylish, supportive, but scarily prone to crimes of passion. He’s played by Alessandro Nivola, shrewdly and well.

“The Many Saints of Newark” is narrated by the late Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli in voice-over), who, as he reminds us, was killed by his beloved father figure, Tony, decades after this movie’s setting. The hook is the 1967 Newark uprising, set into raging motion by a (real-life) beating of a Black cabbie by white Newark police.

Organized crime in Newark has become a messy, competitive business. Leslie Odom Jr. of “Hamilton” and “One Night in Miami” plays a key Black asset to the Italian American crime family syndicate, a shakedown artist forced to eat the racial humiliations and crumbs as long as he can stomach them.

The home lives of the Sopranos and the Moltisantis operate on routine and ritual (confirmation parties, the husbands’ shadowy arrangements with their mistresses) but their emotional turmoil knows no routine. “The Many Saints of Newark” benefits greatly from Ray Liotta in what Hollywood studio marketing teams used to call “a demanding dual role,” first as Aldo Moltisanti, then … well, the moment Liotta reenters the narrative is a ripe one, so we’ll call it there.

For many, the lure of this prequel is simple: Who’d they get to play the younger version of so-and-so, and how are they? Vera Farmiga is terrific in her few, brief appearances as the legendarily hostile/needy Livia, easily in the Top 5 for Tony’s therapy as an adult. Tony’s Uncle Junior is played by Corey Stoll, who, like Liotta, oozes an innate quality of faintly comic menace in these circumstances. Some of the touches dive into caricature — John Magaro, I think, takes it a step too far as young Silvio, though Steven Van Zandt was already out there in the series ― but where it counts, the casting’s choice.

Leslie Odom, Jr., left, and Alessandro Nivola star in "The Many Saints of Newark." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movie 13 and Hanover Movies 16 and on HBO Max.

Gandolfini was the right way to go. He’s not yet a formidable technician, nor is he trying to be. “The Many Saints of Newark” concerns the gang warfare going on around this young man, mirrored by the fires of ‘67 spreading across the country. In the foreground, Chase and Konner focus on their sad coming-of-age fable, hinging on a brokenhearted betrayal involving Tony and Dickie.

As with the series, the best scenes here remain slightly off-plot yet wholly on-target and devoted to the characters as well as matters of corrupted, corrosive character. Much of the violence is rough, and not for kicks, with the exception of a drill-in-the-mouth torture scene that threw me straight out of the picture. Within its two hours, several key characters, notably those portrayed by Odom Jr. and, as Tony’s father, Jon Bernthal, must fight for their share of narrative turf.

Gandolfini’s plain-spoken, watchful turn becomes a bittersweet act of remembrance. This isn’t the Tony we know from the 1999-2007 HBO years; it’s the work in progress, lost, restless and searching. for a sense of belonging. I’d love to see a series dealing with Tony’s years immediately following the years covered in “The Many Saints of Newark.” Meantime, as movie spinoffs go, this one’s fuller and livelier than, say, the “Downton Abbey” movie. Bad manners and apples-and-oranges to say so, I suppose. Oh, well. Too late.

‘THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK’

3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity)

Running time: 2:00

Where to watch: Premieres Friday in theaters and on HBO Max.