‘The Many Saints of Newark’ – ‘The Sopranos’ Prequel Drags When it Should Entertain

I guess it was inevitable that David Chase would eventually revisit the world he created with “The Sopranos,” one of the greatest television shows ever. Vince Gilligan did the same with “El Camino,” the sequel to his acclaimed series “Breaking Bad,” and now Chase gives us “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel to “The Sopranos.” But while “El Camino” proved to be excellent, this prequel ends up being nowhere as enthralling as even the average “Sopranos” episode. As much as I wanted to like it, I came out of it feeling rather disappointed.

“The Many Saints of Newark” comes with the tagline “Who Made Tony Soprano?” But while Tony is a major character, this movie focuses more on a violent gang war which takes place during the 1960’s and 1970’s in Newark, New Jersey. The main character of this piece is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a soldier in the DiMeo crime family who is also Tony’s uncle. As the story begins, Dickie and Tony are welcoming Dickie’s father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) who has just arrived back in America with his new Italian wife, Giuseppina. On the surface, everything and anything seems possible to all the characters, but we know eventually that everything will come crashing down upon them before they know it.

A pivotal moment occurs for Dickie at one point (you’ll know it when it comes), and he ends up visiting his dad’s twin brother, Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti (also played by Liotta), in the hopes of doing some good deeds which will absolve his soul. It is during these conversations where Salvatore tells Dickie, “Pain comes from always wanting things.” This reminds me of what Mr. Spock once said on the original “Star Trek” series:

“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

Salvatore comes to discover this the hard way. While he is serious about doing good deeds, some of us may remember how the road to hell is paved with them, and this is certainly the case here.

The screenplay, which Chase wrote with Lawrence Konner, paints a rich canvas for everyone to work with as it confronts the racial strife in Newark back in the 60’s and 70’s. We watch as African Americans riot against the racist police who abused a black taxi driver just because he was black, and it serves as a depressing reminder of how many still will not learn from history as America remains engulfed all these years later.

At the same time, Chase, Konner and director Alan Taylor, who directed many of the best “Sopranos” episodes, have given themselves too much to work with. While they have vividly captured a turbulent past, the screenplay lacks a center for which to hang everything on, and the movie ends up dragging far too often. As a result, I found my attention wandering in a way I never would have during any “Sopranos” episode.

There is a subplot involving Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) who has returned to Newark to start his own black-led crime operation. The actions of his gang lead to some moments of truly shocking violence which “The Sopranos” was known for, but this does little to alleviate the times where this prequel drags as no one seems to be able to balance out this subplot with all the other varying storylines.

I also got to say there are far too many obvious odes to “Goodfellas” throughout. Maybe I am a little biased because Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime classic remains my all-time favorite movie, but seeing Ray Liotta getting his head smashed into a steering wheel several times over just takes me out of the story for no good reason.

For me, I was hoping “The Many Saints of Newark” would focus more on Tony Soprano as he is presented here as a young adult, and it was fascinating to see how intelligent he was even when he does not apply himself at school. A lot of this has to do with the performance of Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini who originated this iconic role. It is tempting to say Michael got cast because of resemblance to his father, but he did in fact had to audition which was smart. From start to finish, he does a tremendous job of showing Tony to be a confused kid who struggles to find meaning in his life as he is forced to deal with an absent father and an ineffectual mother. As a result, it is no wonder he looks up to his Uncle Dickie, the only one adult who seems to be looking out for him. Michael is terrific and, more importantly, he makes this role his own.

It feels like it has been far too long since I have seen Alessandro Nivola in anything. I still remember him best for being Nicolas Cage’s brother in “Face/Off” and for playing the guy dumb enough to steal some velociraptor eggs in “Jurassic Park III.” But he is excellent here as Dickie Moltisanti, a man who wants to do some good deeds after having performed a number of heinous ones. Still, Dickie is a man whose passions typically get the best of him, and Nivola is great at showing the constant struggles he endures while struggling with a lifestyle which could see him get killed at any moment.

Indeed, there are many great performances throughout. While some have no choice but to inhabit younger versions of “Sopranos” characters to where they offer mere impersonations of them, others are a bit luckier. Vera Farmiga is tremendous as Livia Soprano, the same role made famous by the late great Nancy Marchand, to where if she decided to utter “I wish the lord would take me,” I would have been perfectly fine with that. In addition, John Bernthal makes for a very tough Johnny Soprano, Corey Stoll is excellent as Junior Soprano, and it is fascinating to watch Michela De Rossi as she makes Giuseppina Moltisanti evolve effortlessly from one scene to the next.

I do have some reservations, however, when it comes to Liotta, or half of Liotta anyway. As “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, he overacts to a painful degree as he tries to look and sound older than he really is. Watching him as this character was a bit unnerving, and thankfully this character disappears from the proceedings early on.  

But as the incarcerated Salvatore Moltisanti, Liotta brings an understated menace, the same kind he utilized in “Unlawful Entry,” which makes his performance one of the most compelling here as he dispenses advice which everyone around him would do best to take seriously. Plus, I love how the actor does not have to do much to show how serious Salvatore is about jazz. Seeing him stare at a Miles Davis vinyl record shows the kind of heaven this character seeks in life, and that’s even if it doesn’t bring a smile to his face.

And in a series where the dead characters are still hovering the lives of the living, I liked how Michael Imperioli returns to narrate this movie as Christopher Moltisanti as the character attempts to illustrate how Tony Soprano became Tony Soprano. There’s even a scene when Tony first meets Christopher as a baby, and it proves to be ahaunting sign of things to come.

Look, if you are a fan of “The Sopranos,” you are bound to see “The Many Saints of Newark” at some point. What we got here is not a bad movie, and I am thankful that it is not the kind of prequel which hurriedly tries to tie everything together to match up with the events of the show. Still, despite some strong writing and performances, this movie is unbalanced and is nowhere as enthralling as a “Sopranos” episode should be. It sucks to call this a missed opportunity, but it is what it is. There is a lot to admire, but not enough to enjoy.

And if you are interested, yes, Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” is featured here. It would be blasphemy for any “Sopranos” episode or movie to be absent of it.

* * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: “The Many Saints of Newark” is the latest film to be released theatrically while simultaneously being given a month-long streaming release on HBO Max. I have long since found this form of release to be counter-productive as, while it may benefit HBO Max, it completely devalues the theatrical experience. While the COVID pandemic is still a big thing, I truly believe this type of release is one of the main reasons as to why “The Suicide Squad,” “Cry Macho,” “Malignant” and this prequel are dying quickly at the box office. I shudder to think what this will do to “Dune” and “The Matrix Resurrections” as they are being released in the same way, and these two movies demand to be seen on the silver screen. The sooner this simultaneous release pattern ends, the better.  

Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is Wonderfully Old-Fashioned

Murder on the Orient Express 2017 movie poster

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” marks a return of sorts for the actor and director. His last few movies as a director, “Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Cinderella,” had him embracing all the cinematic tools available to him to where his unique talents threatened to be squashed as he began to look like any other filmmaker making blockbuster motion pictures. But with this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, we see him returning to his theatre roots as he directs an all-star cast to excellent performances while simultaneously playing the lead role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The late Leonard Nimoy said he never directed another “Star Trek” movie after “The Voyage Home” because acting and directing at the same time was just too much work. Branagh, however, makes it all look like a walk in the park, and after all these years I am astonished that he can make it look so easy.

Branagh is fantastic as Hercule, and he makes this classic character into a man of many splendors. We first see him being very picky about being served two hard-boiled eggs, both of which need to be the same size for him to eat. This scene almost makes him looks like a food snob, but then we see him solve a crime at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Hercule brings up three holy men to the front of the crowd, and immediately we think one of them is guilty, and that, once the guilty man is revealed, people will find their prejudices to be justified. But instead, Hercule implicates another man with the crime, and it shows how he sees sins as being universal and not relegated to a particular group or ethnicity. From there, we know this man will not be bound by prejudice when it comes to solving a crime.

Hercule just wants to take a holiday aboard the Orient Express, and we see him take great joy in observing perfectly baked foods as well in reading Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which he laughs at constantly. But detectives like him can only stay on vacation for so long as the scent of crime is never far from him. And, as the movie’s title implies, a murder is committed which only he can solve with his unique set of skills. This will not be an easy case, but Hercule is quick to tell us, “If it were easy, I would not be famous.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” has been adapted several times, the most famous adaptation being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film which, like this one, features an all-star cast. I have not seen any of the previous versions nor have I read Christie’s novel, so I am coming into this one a fresh newbie. From the start, I expected Branagh’s film to be an old-fashioned whodunit, but as it went on, I was surprised to see the story deal with themes Shakespeare wrote about time and time again. It becomes less about who the murderer is and more about the sins we allow ourselves to live with and of the different kinds of punishment we are forced to endure. Once the murderer is revealed, the story doesn’t stop there.

Branagh brings together a terrific group of actors who sink their teeth into roles which, on the surface, might seem underwritten and one-dimensional, but each actor does excellent work in creating an inner life for their characters to where their eyes tell us more than their mouths do. Even as they work on perfecting their poker faces, something which Hercule has them all beat at, their eyes betray a truth which can no longer stay buried.

Johnny Depp shows up as Edward Ratchett, an unsavory individual who becomes the victim of the story. Seeing Depp getting killed off early on in a movie is guaranteed to please many audience members who have had their fill of him, and I don’t just mean Amber Heard. I’m just glad Branagh cast him in this role instead of as Hercule. Depp would have just resurrected his Guy LaPointe character from “Tusk” and “Yoga Hosers” if he played Hercule, or perhaps he would have given us another variation on Charlie Mortdecai as, like Hercule, that character sports a truly extravagant mustache. All the same, Depp is wonderful in the role and makes Ratchett into a despicable character whose nasty fate deserves a thorough investigation.

I loved watching Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados as her demeanor presents the character as one with dark intentions as well as someone who has suffered far too much pain and tragedy in life. It took me a bit to recognize Josh Gad who plays Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen, and he is excellent as a man who has compromised his values once too often. Daisy Ridley, whom we cannot wait to see again as Rey in the next “Star Wars” movie, matches Branagh scene for scene as Mary Debenham, a lady who refuses to be investigated by Hercule for a protracted amount of time, but even her poker face falls apart before she realizes it. And you can always depend on Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe to turn in excellent performances as they rarely, if ever, have let us down.

But one performance I want to single out in particular is Michelle Pfeiffer’s who portrays Caroline Hubbard. 2017 has been a big year for Pfeiffer as she has emerged from what seems like an infinitely long hiatus and has given unforgettable and scene-stealing performances in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” and Barry Levinson’s “The Wizard of Lies.” The same goes with her performance here as she takes the stereotypical divorced socialite and renders her into a complex figure of tragedy whose armor is harder for Hercule to break through. Pfeiffer has always been a fantastic actress, and her performance as Caroline reminded me of this and of how long her career has lasted. She has a show-stopping moment towards the movie’s end (you’ll know it when you see it), and it is further proof of how she has never been just another pretty face in Hollywood.

Branagh has directed “Murder on the Orient Express” as a theatre piece, and it is clear to me how much attention he has given the actors here. Having said that, he also gives this adaption a beautifully cinematic look. Along with his collaborators, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle, he makes this film feel wonderfully old-fashioned, and it seems like forever since I have watched a movie which evokes this feeling. It should also be noted how he shot this movie on 65mm film which suits the material perfectly, and seeing those cigarette burns appear on the screen was a very welcome sight for me.

Of course, not everything about “Murder on the Orient Express” is perfect. The movie does drag a bit towards the end, and the story is at times a bit hard to follow. It also pales in comparison to another mystery movie Branagh directed back in the 1990’s, “Dead Again.” Still, it proves to be a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which reminded me of his best work even while not quite equaling it. The ending draws our attention to another Agatha Christie classic novel which implies, if this movie does well, we could be seeing the beginning of a franchise. I do hope this happens as Branagh has put together a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which begs for a continuation. Whether he can come up with a follow up remains to be seen as the world of movies remains dominated by endless superhero/comic book franchises.

I also have to say the mustache Branagh sports in this movie is very impressive. Lord knows how long it took for him to grow and keep so pointy. Many other actors would have been easily upstaged by such a mustache, but not Branagh.

* * * ½ out of * * * *