How do you top, or even equal, perfection? It’s an impossible and daunting task all by itself but imagine that challenge came with added pressures of “going back to the well”, in this case, one of modern television’s most iconic and influential shows? That was the task facing David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, but given his steely, focused approach to such things, it was no doubt akin to a stroll in the park than an anxious couple of years. And so, after over a decade of rumours and conjecture, we are finally returning to the world of Tony Soprano but don’t expect a true explanation of the infamous ending to the show -no, we are going back, way back, to the early genesis of the good fella.
Set in the 1960s spanning through the 1970s, Anthony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini) is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark, N.J., history, becoming a man just as rival gangsters start to rise up and challenge the all-powerful DiMeo crime family. Caught up in the changing times is the uncle he idolizes, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), whose influence over his nephew will help shape the impressionable teenager. And, as Moltisanti’s grip on the city dwindles with the ever-increasing tensions between them and the African-American community – with Leslie Odom Jnr’s Harold McBrayer helping to lead the charge after working for Moltisanti years previous – Anthony’s future may be very different to the one his mother Livia (Vera Farmiga) hoped he would have.
The legacy of The Sopranos is immense and if you didn’t know just how much, you may get a sense of it during The Many Saints of Newark as, despite the best intentions and some riveting, thrilling moments, it just cannot match up to what has gone before, no matter how good some of the set pieces are. Not that Chase, as we already mentioned, wasn’t up for another go on the metaphorical mechanical bull: his usual panache and dark humour flow through the film in abundance, bringing the same energetic feel to the film but while it’s a welcome return for the creator, it sadly doesn’t hit the heights it perhaps should given what had gone before. But, again, it’s almost impossible to top perfection.
There’s no dethroning of the series, nor does it undo anything that has been accomplished before so rest assured you won’t be shedding any tears afterward, but it does beg the question as to whether we needed to head back to explore the infancy of Tony Soprano and, ultimately, the answer is no. There’s such a lure to the character and the world around him that such exploration was, on paper, a worthy exercise, particularly with the strong ensemble brought together with Nivola, Farmiga, and newcomer Michela De Rossi all wonderful in their parts. Kudos, too, to Michael Gandolfini for stepping into his father’s shoes in what must have been a surreal experience for so many reasons, and he too is exemplary.
But in the limited world of the cinematic form, we lose the flair and almost hypnotic nature to it all, instead of acting more as a decent-if-unspectacular mafia drama that ebbs and flows enough to just about keep our interest with themes of legacy, family, and repentance, so it only works for so long before it drifts towards its scrappy finale. Director Alan Taylor – he of Thor: The Dark World and Terminator: Genisys fame which led to his retreat from Hollywood and who directed a few episodes of the show – tries his hardest to keep the momentum going with some nice flourishes but, ultimately, we don’t go deep enough with the characters or the story to really get invested, even if we already know where we are heading. Would this have worked better as a limited series? Perhaps, but when all is said and done, it feels like a “we can” rather than “we should” trip back down the well.
Drama, Thriller| USA, 2021 | 15 | Cinema | UK: September 22nd, 2021 | Warner Bros Pictures | Dir. Alan Taylor | Alessandro Nivola, Vera Farmiga, Ray Liotta, Michael Gandolfini, Corey Stoll, Jon Bernthal, John Magaro, Billy Magnussen, Michela De Rossi