‘The Many Saints of Newark’ delves into Tony Soprano’s transformative early days

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Billy Magnussen, left to right, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, back center, John Magaro, Ray Liotta and Alessandro Nivola in “The Many Saints of Newark”. (Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros. Pictures)

When “The Sopranos” is brought up these days, it’s usually for the nebulous way it ended: that now famous blackout in a crowded restaurant while Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin ‘” plays. . Whether Tony Soprano lived or died is still the subject of heated debate.

The real death in 2013 of the great James Gandolfini put an end to hopes of putting this debate to bed, but David Chase, the creator and showrunner of “The Sopranos”, oddly kept the show alive with the new prequel film “The Many. Saints of Newark. “

It’s intriguing mainly because the film evokes the greatest character ever created for television but doesn’t put him in the middle. Tony Soprano is a cameo in his own origin film.

Instead, the guy in the center is Tony’s self-styled uncle Dickie Moltisanti, played with real verve by Alessandro Nivola. Mafia boss Moltisanti is the guy young Tony admires. But he’s riddled with the same flaws Tony will soon share: possessiveness, quick to anger, methodical and yet impulsive, business-inclined, and eager to consume copious amounts of pork products.

In a stroke of genius, the older of the two young Tony Sopranos in the film is played by Michael Gandolfini, the late actor’s son who shares his father’s expressive, bearded big and sad eyes. He’s fascinating.

The whole old gang – now rejuvenated with new actors, of course – is there: Uncle June, Livia Soprano, Paulie Walnuts, Silvio Dante, Pussy Bonpensiero, Janice Soprano, Jackie Aprile, Carmela and even Christopher Moltisanti, son of Dickie Moltisanti .

Michael Imperioli is back as a young Moltisanti and he seems to have a bit of weight about his former mentor, Tony Soprano, because of the older man who suffocated him to death in 2007. So he tells invisible from the grave.

This leads to one of the funniest moments in the movie: When a baby Moltisanti is introduced by his mother to the family but gets too close to Tony, the baby bursts into tears. “It’s like I’m scaring him or something,” Tony shrugs.

The danger here is that the new actors have a blueprint for what their characters will look and sound like in the future. For the most part, they avoid the caricature – like Vera Farmiga nailing Tony’s fearsome mother and Corey Stoll brilliantly capturing the small and irritable Junior. But John Magaro makes fun of Silvio, Stevie Van Zandt’s consigliere a little too much.

One issue here is time, something the film obviously plays with. “The Many Saints of Newark” comes 14 years after the end of “The Sopranos” and it may be too long for anyone but the most ardent fan to keep up. The brain strives to connect new faces with old ones.

The plot is really only a few slices of years ago in and around Newark, New Jersey, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The DiMeo crime family – of which the Sopranos are a crew – tries to stay afloat during the civil unrest that includes the deadly riots of 1967. But the film sags in many parts, never reaching the series’ focused tension and often seems aimless. If you are not already a fan, this might sound like “Goodfellas” lite.

A formidable Leslie Odom Jr. plays Harold McBrayer, a low-level debt collector who will soon attempt to lead his own team. Ray Liotta wonderfully plays not one but two characters – Dickie’s dead-eyed father and also Dickie’s philosopher and imprisoned uncle. If you are a fan of “The Sopranos”, you will know that Dickie Moltisanti does not appear in the HBO series. You will learn why.

But what about Tony Soprano? How does he become the anxious gangster and father, caught up in the old and the new, as likely to gut an informant brutally as he is to collapse and cry when he hears “Oh Girl” by The Chi-Lite on his car stereo?

We leave it to the dawn of virility, always oscillating between criminality and innocence. Yes, he helps hijack a Mr. Softee truck, but gives all the ice cream. Yes, he takes a pair of stolen speakers, but regrets it. “I’m trying to be good,” he said to his uncle.

There is a revelation of what will become her trigger temper, but also a willingness to embrace mental health aide, which will one day lead to a psychiatrist’s couch. He’s about 20 at the end of the movie, too early to see what really made him.

Credit “The Many Saints of Newark” – screenplay by Chase and Lawrence Konner, and directed by series regular Alan Taylor – for trying to tackle generational violence, structural racism and opening up a story to add more than Italo-Americans shooting each other by branching off into gabagool plates.

But that’s not enough. Tony is as mysterious at the end of “The Many Saints of Newark” as he is at the sudden end of “The Sopranos”. Maybe it is as it should be. Maybe there is room for another prequel.


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