HBO's critically acclaimed TV series The Sopranos gets a theatrical prequel in The Many Saints of Newark. The end result is never bad, but it never grips you the way The Sopranos did at its best.
Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the story's de facto lead is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a mobster in Newark who's an uncle figure to young Tony Soprano (played by William Ludwig and Michael Gandolfini at different ages). There's not really a single plot the film follows. It tries to incorporate younger versions of characters from the show like Tony's mother (Vera Farmiga) and his scheming uncle, Junior (Corey Stoll). But there's also new characters getting significant screen time like an aspiring African-American mobster (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Dickie's father and uncle (Ray Liotta playing two roles), Dickie's young stepmother (Michela De Rossi), and more.
With as many characters and as much time as the film tries to cover, it feels like it would work better as a 6-10-episode TV show instead of a 120-minute film. Character motivations seem fuzzy and one romantic relationship that serves as the catalyst for a subsequent important plot point is barely developed at all before it happens. There's also voice-over narration from the TV show's Christopher (Michael Imperioli) that is introduced and then completely forgotten about for long stretches of time.
On the good side, it's never dull and some of the performances are good. Liotta is particularly good in his dual performance as two very different men. Even though it's the same man playing two roles, Liotta makes you genuinely believe you're watching two entirely different people.
Hardcore fans of The Sopranos will likely find some value in this, but it's also unlikely to win any new fans for the series.
**1/2 stars (out of four)