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The Many Saints of Newark offers Tony Soprano's origin story but is really Uncle Dickie's film 

Alan Taylor (Terminator Genisys, Thor: The Dark World) directs this prequel to the wildly popular groundbreaking TV series The Sopranos (1999-2007), about New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini), whose stress from his personal and professional life sent him seeking psychiatric help. In this origin story, Gandolfini's son Michael plays teenage Tony Soprano. Jon Bernthal plays Tony's father, Johnny Soprano, who was already dead in the TV series, and Vera Farmiga plays Tony's conniving mother, Livia, the source of some of his psychiatric distress in the TV series. (120 min.)

click to enlarge WATCH AND LEARN Young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini, left) is shaped into the mobster he will become by his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), in The Many Saints of Newark, screening in local theaters and on HBO Max. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHASE FILMS AND HBO FILMS
  • Photo Courtesy Of Chase Films And Hbo Films
  • WATCH AND LEARN Young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini, left) is shaped into the mobster he will become by his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), in The Many Saints of Newark, screening in local theaters and on HBO Max.

Glen If you haven't watched the TV series, you can still enjoy this crime story, but fans of The Sopranos will bring with them the background necessary to more fully appreciate it. Set in the '60s and '70s with Newark's 1967 race riots as its backdrop, this is the story of the DiMeo crime family and the various rival families struggling for power, as well as the city's long-simmering racial tensions. It's important to note that it's more Dickie Moltisanti's (Alessandro Nivola) story than Tony's, which may disappoint some fans. I actually expected to learn more about the effect Tony's parents, Johnny and Livia, had on his formative years, but that's somewhat glossed over. In the TV series, one of Tony's underlings was Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli, who narrates this prequel), who Tony strangled to death. Christopher is Dickie's son, who we see as a newborn in the first half of this film. Dickie and Christopher's surname—molti santi—translates to many saints, which explains the title. The references to the TV series are endless, and fans will either appreciate the narrative Easter eggs or grow tired of them, and the uninitiated will probably wonder what these small distractions are about. We watched this on HBO Max, but the film is very cinematic and deserves a big-screen viewing. If you're a fan of crime and mob stories or a fan of the TV series, catch a matinee in local theaters.

Anna I haven't watched an episode of The Sopranos in years, but the details of these characters and this world came back easily. If anything, The Many Saints of Newark was a great reminder that I'm overdue to rewatch the series. Seeing Michael Gandolfini reprise his late father's iconic role is a neat trick to help lure audiences in. While he may not yet have the power his dad did onscreen, Michael does a good job at parsing this character—a character who seems to be a sweet boy growing up in a briar of thorny, tough people who mold him in their cruel image. Farmiga has the put-upon, difficult mom roles down between her time on Bates Motel and the younger version of Livia here. Even though it's been a while since I watched the series, I do remember straight-up despising Tony's mom (played by Nancy Marchand), and Farmiga channels the same level of horridness. While it's easy to get stuck in the comparison game, The Many Saints of Newark stands well on its own. If you have no idea who any of these people are, you may wonder why kid Tony keeps showing up when this film really isn't about him. But unless you've been locked away in the woods for the last 20 years, chances are you're coming into this with at least a sense of the world this show built. While I was happy to have the option to watch it at home, I think you're right—this would be better viewed on the big screen.

Glen Michael Gandolfini actually has a pretty small role here. Child Tony is played by William Ludwig, who does a great job, but watching Michael mirror some of the facial expressions and body mannerisms that his father, James, used in the TV series as Tony is truly a wonder, even if Michael's only on screen sporadically in the second half of the film. I also enjoyed Ray Liotta in a dual role. He plays Dickie's father "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti as well as Dickie's incarcerated uncle, who's doing life for killing a "made guy." He comes off distinctly different in both roles, but this guy's a scenery chewer! He comes from the Gary Oldman school of acting where there's no such thing as "too much." Here's the thing about all of these characters: They're reprobates. In the TV series, we know Tony's prone to violence, but he loves his family and has a kind of moral code. As he's seeking mental health care, we get to know him. Uncle Dickie, who young Tony idolizes, has no real moral code. Even more than adult Tony, he's at the mercy of his own violent urges—a man who can't control himself, and he knows it. He feels guilt, so he's not a psychopath, but he's close. During a visit to his uncle in prison, Dickie gets a piece of advice. If he really cares about his nephew Tony, "Stay out of his life."

Anna Liotta is always a win for me. That guy just takes command of any role he's given. Dickie is a total piece of work, a man who carves destruction all around him. With heroes like that, Tony had little chance of escaping the same cycle of violence. It's gritty and dramatic, and the race riots as an ever-present cause of conflict lend a great backdrop for this dark and oftentimes violent story. It's nice to have a little extra slice of Sopranos pie, and while I can't say it rivals the show in complexity and depth, it makes a great addition to the universe. Δ

Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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