The Many Saints of Newark will debut in theaters and on HBO Max on Oct. 1.
It’s been 14 years since we last saw the Sopranos on the silver screen, but prequel film The Many Saints of Newark is here to sate nostalgic fans’ appetites for mobster drama. It soars when it focuses on the iconic characters of HBO’s acclaimed series, getting the mafia aspects right, and only falters when it tries to add too much to The Sopranos Universe in its limited two-hour timeframe. Still, this should satisfy fans who’ve been missing (or rewatching) the beloved show over the past decade-and-a-half.
Although this is, in part, Tony Sopranos’ origin story, the film largely centers on the man Tony idolized growing up, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), during the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. Fans of the 1999-2007 HBO series will recognize that name, as he’s the father of Tony’s ill-fated right-hand man Christopher (Michael Imperioli), who also serves as the film’s narrator from beyond the grave. Tony, played by Michael Gandolfini (son of the original Tony Soprano himself, the late James Gandolfini), is mostly an observer. Dickie is the really interesting sell here, and we learn that he served as Tony’s main influence into the mafia world. The two share a lot in common: problems with their families, professional issues (that lead to some horrifying torture scenes), and violent tempers that result in deadly consequences.
Dickie, at first glance, is a suave family man who dresses in fancy suits and wants to be a good man — you know, despite the murders and money laundering. Like Tony in The Sopranos, Dickie believes that he’s the hero in his own story, justifying his terrible actions by trying to do some good, like hosting a blind baseball league or trying to get a young Tony far, far away from the mafia life. The only problem is that we’re only given just two hours to get to know this character, versus the 86 episodes we spent with Tony. Even with the inclusion of Dickie’s incarcerated uncle (played wonderfully by Ray Liotta), the only voice of reason, it never feels like Dickie could wipe the red in his ledger clean. Nivola is fantastic as the tormented Dickie, playing this morality push-and-pull beautifully and convincingly.
The Sopranos creator David Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner obviously have an intimate understanding of Italian mobster stories, and the film is at its best when it comes to the family aspect of mafia life. Chase and Konner take advantage of the show’s rich lore, showcasing classic characters like Paulie (Billy Magnussen), Silvio (John Magaro), Pussy (Samson Moeakiola), and Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll). Although Paulie, Silvio, and Pussy’s scenes basically amount to comic relief, it’s fun to revisit them all the same.
The Many Saints of Newark: Who’s Who in the Sopranos Prequel Movie
Looking and sounding like the Tony Soprano we will eventually meet, Gandolfini does a fantastic job playing the younger version of his father’s iconic role. Vera Farmiga stands out as Tony’s mother, Livia, and reflects the utter chaos at the heart of this character from the original series, as played then by the late Nancy Marchand. In good oedipal fashion, it’s a bit unsettling seeing how much young Livia looks and sounds like Edie Falco’s Carmela Soprano. This kind of thing isn’t entirely unexpected from the creators of The Sopranos, and the movie also doesn’t shy away from Dickie’s infatuation for his new stepmother (Michela De Rossi).
It’s when The Many Saints of Newark attempts to expand the mobster universe to include other rival gangs that it starts to feel disjointed. It’s clear that Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), Dickie’s muscle and enforcer, is tired of the Italians taking over the city, including the Black neighborhoods, and wants to take control by any means necessary. Harold’s story is affected further by the racial tensions of the 1967 Newark riots, which started after Jersey police brutally beat a Black taxi driver. Although it’s obvious that this narrative is important to Harold’s actions and motivations, the film doesn’t really follow up on it. The scenes of Black neighborhood kids dying from police violence certainly infuriate and disturb us, but they have little impact on the Italian storyline. This aspect of the plot really just ends up feeling empty. Harold, too, is mostly sidelined in the third act, never giving us a proper resolution for his and Dickie’s strained relationship. What was the point of giving us this Black organized crime syndicate when it was just going to be ignored for the rest of the movie?
The film’s biggest obstacle is really its lack of time. It makes sense that it focuses more on Tony in the third act — after all, we want to know how Dickie’s story connects to the eventual Don. As interesting as it is to explore Tony’s youth, it’s to the detriment of Dickie and Harold’s stories. The character development that Chase and Konner wanted to build would probably be better served by a limited series, where we’d have time to sympathize with Dickie and better understand his complicated moral compass. The Sopranos thrived by creating nuanced and flawed characters with rich storylines and brilliant performances. The Many Saints of Newark has all the elements to be just as good, but falls flat when it tries to add too many layers to the story with such limited time. If HBO Max decides to take this up a notch and greenlights a limited series, it has the potential to be great.