“The Phantom Menace” introduced us to the young Darth Vader, except it was just a punk with a knack for spaceship repairs.
We never saw a hint of the monster he would become.
“The Many Saints of Newark,” the first prequel film tied to HBO’s “The Sopranos,” fails in a similar fashion. We meet the young man destined to become Tony Soprano, the mob boss who captivated us for six glorious seasons.
Yet all we see is Michael Gandolfini, playing the younger version of his late father’s character, scuffling about like any confused teen.
That disappointment typifies “Saints,” a film that looks and sounds like a “Sopranos” episode as if spat out by a computer program. Except this tale came from David Chase, the maestro behind the magnificent mob drama.
“The Many Saints of Newark” is mostly about “Dickie” Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father to Christopher from the original series. It’s the late 1960s, a time of palpable racial tension, and he’s a major player in the Jersey mob.
Naturally, the men in his life are dysfunctional and unworthy of his trust. Consider his blowhard pappy, played by Ray Liotta, who likes to smack his women around when they don’t behave like he wants.
And then there’s Tony Soprano (Gandolfini), Dickie’s nephew. Dickie wants to be a father figure to the lad, especially after the teen’s own dad (Jon Bernthal, underused) gets hauled off to jail.
Dickie just isn’t the role model type, what with all that gangsterism. Can Dickie become a better man, or will he nudge his nephew into his own life of crime?
That might be the template for a fascinating character study, except “Saints” pulls itself in too many directions to make it happen. The film’s opening sequences are maddening – it feels like a greatest hits jumble of characters and events we’re just sorting out.
The original series took its time, letting us savor the performances, dialogue and raw Jersey roots. “Saints” is in a mad dash to entertain us, and the impulse is short sighted.
“Sopranos” fanatics will find some unabashed pleasures in these “Saints.”
It’s great to see Silvio again on any screen, large or small, evoking the complex thug played by Steven Van Zandt. We need more, though. This is a feature film bearing all the earmarks of TV’s greatest mob saga, not a straight-to-video quickie.
Chase comes up empty over and again, and yet “The Many Saints of Newark” is rarely dull. There’s plenty of colorful mob-speak, both hilarious and dark, to snag our attention. And, of course, the ultra-violence will keep any audience member from napping.
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So where are the big emotional beats, the insights into the human condition that “The Sopranos” ladled out with such perfection? You won’t find many here.
In fact, Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner take some maddening short cuts along way.
In one sequence, a school official tells Tony’s mother (Vera Farmiga, hidden behind a prosthetic nose to resemble Nancy Marchand) her boy is a natural leader. Remember the “show, don’t tell” storytelling maxim? “Saints” gives it the stiff arm.
Marginally better is the addition of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a black numbers runner with a career connection to Dickie. The character never fully comes to life, but that’s a flaw of the script, not Odom, Jr. The character, and the race riots featured prominently in the film’s first act, offer a chance to show why this story had to be told in this era.
Once again, we get a swing and miss.
“Saints” doesn’t go woke – how could any “Sopranos” story – but we spend more time “re-meeting” members of the old Sopranos gang than digging into the complex themes in play:
- “Junior” (Corey Stoll, standing in for Dominic Chianese)
- Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpansiero (Samson Moekiola in place of Vincent Pastore)
- Silvio Dante (John Magaro instead of Van Zandt)
- Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen capturing what Tony Sirico created)
It’s pure Fan Service, and there’s little wrong with that if it’s accompanied by a mesmerizing new yarn. That’s where “Saints” fails to live up to the saga’s lush legacy the most.
HiT or Miss: “The Many Saints of Newark” will delight “Sopranos” fans who miss that show’s rough and tumble reality. Those new to the series, or just seeking a meaty drama, will come away famished.
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