"The Sopranos" is probably still the best TV series ever made because it was uniquely cinematic. Indeed, its premiere was followed shortly by a theatrically-released movie that came across as its pastiche, "Analyze This" (1999), which merely played the mobster-shrink angle for laughs. It wasn't so much the writing, either, that set "The Sopranos" apart, which while fine, was still necessarily serialized, but the camerawork, production values and acting were worthy of feature films at a time when that wasn't the case with anything else on TV. Heck, they kept ineptly giving out Emmys to "The West Wing," and as much as that politically-idealistic sap has been a guilty pleasure of mine, the show looks tacky by comparison (especially that poor TV lighting masquerading as dark and important cinema). Moreover, "The Sopranos" ended perfectly. I won't say it was ambiguous when it cut to black, as I think it was pretty obvious what happened, and one can easily find it explained in interviews since, but there was none of the episodic junk of the cast patronizingly saying their goodbyes to viewers that you see with most such planned finales.
Then, this comes along. "The Many Saints of Newark," a theatrically-released (albeit simultaneously streamed, too, as with all Warner movies this pandemic year) prequel. It's almost pure cash-grab fan servicing. It's not nearly as bad as the utterly redundant "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie" (2019), but it's about as superfluous as "Downton Abbey" (2019), which is shame because "The Sopranos" was far better than that show, which I never even finished it was so dully anachronistic and melodramatic. I'm not saying this movie ruins the legacy of the TV show or anything, either, as I don't believe in that sort of thing, but it is mostly pointless artistically. I suppose to make a good movie based on a TV show, one has to make a break from the series, to become its own thing. The formats really are different in important ways, and that should be recognized. Here, it's not.
There's occasional narration from a character who died in the show for no other purpose than to play on our nostalgia, as the character only appears as an infant in one scene, which includes an atrocious bit of spiritualist explanation as retroactive foreshadowing--after-the-fact-foreshadowing, or I guess that's merely shadowing--that Tony Soprano will murder him one day. Moreover, Tony is hardly a character here, either. He has no real character arch. There's a scene with a school guidance counselor in lieu of a psychiatrist session. For all the regular characters who would be in "The Sopranos," the interest in them here hardly goes beyond other actors doing impressions of their younger selves. Slightly amusing at best, or a sympathetic ode to his late father in the case of Michael Gandolfini. Otherwise, it's as if the characters are just here because they'll be important in future episodes--like in a TV show. I will say, though, that casting Ray Liotta, most famous for "Goodfellas" (1990), one of those gangster movie precedents for the cinematics of "The Sopranos," is a nice touch, as is having him play twin roles. I'd give this the edge over that "Downton Abbey" movie just for this.
The actual narrative here, though, involves Tony's uncle Dickie (Alessandro Nivola) and his racial gang turf feud, his Italian mafia versus that of African-American rivals, led by Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), over who runs the illicit local lottery, or "numbers," in crime speak. All of that is ho-hum, generic gangster movie stuff played against the background of a race riot over police brutality and with the Vietnam War receding ever farther in the background. A bit more interesting, especially given the show's tendency for psychobabble, is that Dickie essentially plays out an Oedipus complex over his step-mother and all the while being blind to the ultimate threat against his life.
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