Those who have never watched HBO’s The Sopranos may be rightfully apprehensive about The Many Saints of Newark, the long-awaited prequel film which chronicles the rise of the show’s Mafioso character Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). Spanning six highly acclaimed seasons the series is considered to be a benchmark of the genre, taking pride alongside the likes of The Godfather and Goodfellas.

Those viewers who are perturbed by the notion will be pleased to learn that although it is mostly made up of youthful versions of many pre-established characters, it also stands alone and provides not only an entry point into the Sopranos’ world, but also holds its own for anyone without the patience for six entire seasons. Avid fans will enjoy seeing favourite characters introduced before their prime, and there’s fun to be had working out who is who and trying to pair the young faces with the old.

The Soprano family tree and the network of relationships is too complex to explore here, except to say that as far as the storyline goes, it is easy to follow. With a narrative that is cautiously similar to that of Goodfellas, the story tells of a young Tony Soprano from the tender are of eight and follows his life from being on the fringes of the family business to his teenage years and the moment he crossed the line. It is a formulaic tale, without question, but with the direction of Alan Taylor (who helmed many episodes of the show) the film wisely turns its attention to the senior members of the clan and the dangerous dealings they made as they build their empire. This not only provides long-serving fans with a tangible connection to The Sopranos, but also allows for the world of crime to slowly erode Tony’s innocence.

With the opening act set amidst the 1967 race riots in Newark, New Jersey, the film also follows the rise of an African American crime organisation (based on the real organisation known as ‘The Family’) which is led by a former ‘heavy’ of the Sopranos’ crew, and with the threat of a turf war looming, the story and the violence associated with the mounting tensions, The Many Saints of Newark earns its title and provides a new complexity unto its own that fans of the show should appreciate.

The film is lead by Alessandro Nivola (A Most Violent Year) as Tony Soprano’s uncle Dickie Moltisanti, whose presence was only ever referenced in the show but was very integral to the family’s lineage. His charm and charisma, along with a nuanced conflict over right and wrong is nicely measured and provides the franchise a complex founding character. He is surrounded by excellent performances from Joe Bernthal (The Punisher: War Machine), Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) and Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), who fit the ‘mob’ mould perfectly and reflect their predecessors with familiarity.

The standout performance, however, is young Michael Gandolfini, who steps into his late father’s shoes with a perfect fit. Not only does his resemblance to his old man give credence to Tony Soprano’s origins, but also proves him to be a chip off the block. The various character traits and inflections are eerily mirrored and Gandolfini hits every beat with seeming ease. His part in the film is exciting on many levels and is arguably the film’s real take-away success.

With strong direction and excellent performances, The Many Saints of Newark is a very good mob film that might have been great were it not for an all too familiar plot trajectory. With that said, the ground has been paved with future instalments in mind and this quality film may become the prelude to an excellent three-act prequel to one of the greatest television series of all time.

In cinemas: November 4
Starring: Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga
Directed by: Alan Taylor

Grab The Sopranos – Complete Series at JB Hi-Fi.

Check out our interviews with Ray Liotta and Michael Gandolfini on The Many Saints of Newark below: