This film is like trying to finish a puzzle where most of it is already put together. But this prequel actually makes sense and respects the tone and iconic characters David Chase created in the original Sopranos series without making it a parody. Chief among them is John Magaro as Silvio Dante playing Steve van Zant. But it’s frustrating and like whiplash getting all of the young characters presented in snippets that were given years to develop as adults on the TV series.
In this gritty city in the 1960’s where violent sociopaths, racists and misogynists are doing whatever necessary to get money and power, there are twists and double twists. They were all soldiers, ruthless and hell bent on controlling whatever necessary to advance the family business.
Chase, who created the characters in the original, co-wrote this film with Lawrence Konner (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos). Chase was not really interested in making this film, but more interested in learning about the history of of the town when his own parents when they lived in Newark. He wanted to make a mob movie to explore the inner workings of organized crime at that time in the 60’s when the race riots blew up there.
Alan Taylor directs the film with plenty of panache. We found the beginning of the film to be a bit frantic and seemingly underdeveloped with snippets trying to introduce all of the characters before getting into the meat of the story. The original series had years to play it all out. Here you have to catch in 2 hours. You see the principles, young or younger, and have to remember in your mind’s eye who and what they became later. But once the characters are established, (Jon Bernthal as Johnny Boy/Anthony’s father, Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano, John Magaro as Steve Van Zant’s Silvio Dante), the motivations of each become increasingly clear and you get pulled in wanting to see what they do in the prequel.
There are plenty of twists and turns in the volatile and violent environment that Tony Soprano inherited. Taylor sets the period with those long, shiny Cadillacs and Lincolns from the ‘60s as status symbols. Running the numbers racket, taking payoffs from neighborhood businesses and selling hot merchandise was their basic gravy train, orchestrated by the top guns of the family.
Young Anthony is at the center of this story for two reasons. He is not only the character that became the head of the Family in the TV series, he is played by Michael Gandolfini, James Gandolfini’s son. Yes, he had to audition for the part, having never watched his father in the series. Chase says they auditioned a lot of boys, but Michael stood out. He then had to watch the original series to catch up.
Michael developed the same awkward stance, and stare as his Dad and you can see him grow into the smart, take no prisoners leader Tony became. Young Tony eventually modeled his behavior watching the central characters in this film, especially his Uncle Dickie (Alesandro Nivola). It also didn’t hurt having the meanest mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga) who gave Tony plenty to talk about with his therapist years later in the TV series.
Nivola is the slick Dickie Moltisanti orchestrating the family business in Newark at the direction of his father, Aldo, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta in a dual role). Aldo has just returned from Italy with voluptuous, new young bride, Giuseppina Bruno, (Michela De Rossi). Liotta’s Aldo is the epitome of a ruthless, brutal crime boss. He can go from charming to lethal in a flash. The camera’s close ups on his cragged, deeply-lined face enhances the ugly terror that oozes from his every pore.
Liotta also appears as “Hollywood” Dickie Moltisanto, Aldo’s twin brother who is a convicted murderer serving his sentence. He is a Jazz loving inmate who reluctantly acts as Dickie’s sounding board to help navigate his strategy.
Nivola does a fine job as the handsome henchman who Chase and Konner make the lead character. Through his actions we learn the most about the structure of the mob and the family, especially about young Tony.
At the same time, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr. – Hamilton) is the future as the rise of Black Power on the social and criminal scene is on the move. McBrayer is a lower level soldier in the Italian mob who sees his chance to challenge the entrenched power structure through all out war. He’s learned his lessons well. Chase creates him as the most fearless of them all. the scenes of the riots and looting, showing the inequality, economic depravation and police brutality in the Black community is explosively presented.
Know that this film is graphically violent with plenty of colorful characters, but the plot trails off just like in The Sopranos TV series. Here, Chase leaves us hanging once again. This film does a pretty good job whetting your appetite to see where they all came from which may prompt you to check out the original series. But we think Chase should now be done dealing with these wise guys who were no saints.
Warner Brothers 120 minutes R
In theaters and on HBO Max
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