'Many Saints of Newark' review: A master class for 'Sopranos' faithful

David Chase returns to the scene of the crimes to explore the origins of Tony Soprano in this riveting 'Sopranos' prequel.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

For fans of "The Sopranos," HBO's groundbreaking, violent, soulful crime saga that ushered in our current era of Prestige TV, "The Many Saints of Newark" will be as welcome as a heaping plate of gabagool. 

Michael Gandolfini in "Many Saints of Newark."

This '60s-set prequel to "The Sopranos" hurls viewers back into the New Jersey neighborhoods that gave rise to Tony Soprano, and digs deep into the fraught, knotty family history between the Sopranos and the Moltisantis.

The storytelling is rich and intoxicating, the performances are authentic and lived in and it's a treat to be back inside the world of creator David Chase. He knows this terrain, down to every crack in the sidewalk, and he allows viewers to breathe the air that his characters inhabit. Take it in, hold it in your lungs and savor it, because masters like Chase don't come around often.    

Non-fans of "The Sopranos" are probably wondering what the heck gabagool is. "Many Saints" isn't for them. This is an exercise for superfans, a reward for delving into the original series' six-season run, which began in 1999 and wrapped in 2007. And although it's a prequel, it's not meant to be watched before the series, so newbies shouldn't look to it as an entry point, because it's riddled with future spoilers that may take away from "The Sopranos" experience. And that experience is something "Many Saints" enriches. 

The first voice heard in "Many Saints" is that of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), who narrates the film from beyond the grave even though as the film opens, his character isn't born yet, Chase's nifty little metaphor on where the life gets you. Don't get caught up in the details, it all makes sense in the larger picture, which "Many Saints" helps piece together. 

It's the late 1960s and northern New Jersey is changing, a microcosm of a racially torn America. The Moltisantis — slow it down and sound it out, that's how you get your "many saints" — and the Sopranos are key players in the Newark mafia and they're branches of the same tree, though their inner-family rivalry often bubbles over and results in a whacking. It's never pretty, even less so when it's between family. 

Michael Gandolfini and Alessandro Nivola in "Many Saints of Newark."

Alessandro Nivola plays Richard "Dickie" Moltisanti, a budding boss in the Newark streets with a conflicted soul (and eventual father to Christopher Moltisanti). His father Aldo "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) is a made man, and Dickie carries on his family's conflicted love/ hate relationship with the Sopranos, including Corrado "Junior" Soprano (Corey Stoll) and Giovanni "Johnny Boy" Soprano (Jon Bernthal). In the background, quietly taking everything in, is a young Tony Soprano, played as a boy by William Ludwig and later by Michael Ganfolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini.

Tony is why we're here, but to understand Tony, you have to understand everything around him and where he came from. Dickie, whom young Tony looks up to, is a player in the town's numbers-running game, and he enlists the help of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), whose undertold story feels ready to pathway into a completely different tale.

As Dickie's father is settling into a new life with a new wife half (or even less) his age (she's played by Michaela De Rossi), things get heated one night, and let's just say the steering wheel of a parked car has never been used as a weapon quite as effectively. That sets off a chain of events that leads to the making of a monster, and if "The Many Saints of Newark" comes to a rather abrupt ending, perhaps that shouldn't be such a surprise, given the source material.  

Chase — who co-wrote the screenplay with "Sopranos" veteran Lawrence Konner — and director Alan Taylor, also a "Sopranos" vet, revel in the period details and the connecting of the dots that fans will have a ball poring over. (Was that young Tony wistfully standing inside Holsten's?) Several sequences, including a baseball game for the blind and a Christmastime walk on the beach, evoke a richness that recalls the best of "The Sopranos" and the show's ability to masterfully shift tones even within a single scene.  

Vera Farmiga plays Livia Soprano as a fantastic tribute to Nancy Marchand's original portrayal of the character, while John Magaro is pure comedy as a young Silvio Dante, doing a wild impression of a young Steven Van Zandt. Other familiar characters show up, including Billy Magnussen as Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri, Samson Moeakiola as Salvatore "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero and Alexandra Intrator as Janice Soprano.

But it's Ray Liotta in a double role that casts the most lasting impression, playing two sides of a dark and tormented conscience and embodying the duality of Chase's family men mobsters. Behind bars as Sal Moltisanti, brother of "Hollywood Dick," Liotta's character espouses truths about what he's seen, where it's landed him and how he sees everything now, never saying more than he has to. "Maybe some of the things you do aren't God's favorite," he tells a conflicted Dick, each word spilling out of his mouth slowly and containing multitudes of meaning. For his part, Liotta hasn't been this good since "Goodfellas."  

"The Many Saints of Newark" is about faith and family, role models and masculinity, origins and inevitability. It addresses the sins of the father and the way they'll be visited upon the son, and how history is destined to repeat itself unless the chain is broken. But how do you break the chain when it's all you know, and what if you don't particularly want to break the chain? In the end, that's how it gets you. Bada boom, bada bing. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'The Many Saints of Newark' 

GRADE: A-

Rated R: for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity

Running time: 120 minutes

In theaters and on HBO Max