The Many Saints of Newark
Fourteen years after fading to black, 'The Sopranos' gets a firmly familiar but still powerful and engaging big-screen prequel starring James Gandolfini's son Michael.
So much about The Many Saints of Newark is a matter of when, not if: when familiar characters will show up looking younger, when well-known New Jersey locations will be sighted and when someone will eat ziti. This all occurs because it must; it wouldn't be a prequel to The Sopranos otherwise. Servicing fans is a key reason the movie exists, and it's far more resonant if you've already spent 86 episodes with Tony Soprano and his mafia and blood families while watching one of the best TV shows ever made. This is a film with a potent air of inevitability, clearly. Thankfully, that feeling reaches beyond all the obligatory nods and winks. That some things are unavoidable — that giving people what they want doesn't always turn out as planned, and that constantly seeking more will never fix all of life's woes, too — pulsates through this origin story like a thumping bass line. And yes, on that topic, Alabama 3's 'Woke Up This Morning' obviously gets a spin.
Penned by The Sopranos' creator David Chase and series alum Lawrence Konner, and helmed by veteran show director Alan Taylor, The Many Saints of Newark doesn't merely preach to existing devotees, even if they're the film's main audience. Marking the last of the big three 00s-era prestige US cable dramas to earn a movie spinoff — following El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie and Deadwood: The Movie — the feature is aware of its own genesis and of gangster genre staples in tandem. Casting Ray Liotta, who'll forever be associated with Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, was always going to show that. Travelling back to the 70s, when The Godfather franchise electrified cinema, does also. Indeed, The Many Saints of Newark plays like a hybrid of pop culture's three most influential and essential mob stories. A bold move, it also explains what works and what falters in a film that's powerful and engaging but firmly baked in a well-used oven.
The first detail that Sopranos fans should've picked up when this flick first got a title: in Italian, many saints translates as moltisanti. While The Many Saints of Newark spends time with young Tony as a pre-teen in the late 60s (played by feature first-timer William Ludwig) and a teen in the early 70s (when The Deuce's Michael Gandolfini, son of the late, great James Gandolfini, steps into the character's shoes), its protagonist is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola, The Art of Self-Defense). He's seen as an uncle and mentor by Tony, who'll eventually hold the same roles for Dickie's son. The Sopranos mainstay Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli, One Night in Miami) turns narrator here, in fact, offering knowing voiceover that occasionally channels the show's dark humour — calling out Christopher's death at Tony's hands, for instance.
Dickie was recalled with reverence in the series, yet threw a shadow over Tony's middle-aged mob-boss malaise — as seen in his duck obsession, panic attacks and reluctant chats with a psychiatrist. Here, Dickie falls into a similar pattern with his dad 'Hollywood' Dick (Liotta, No Sudden Move), who returns from Italy to subject his new, much-younger bride Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi, The Rats) to domestic violence. One of The Many Saints of Newark's finest traits is its layering, honing in on cycles that keep echoing through generations as it examines Dickie's role in turning Tony into the man viewers watched from 1999–2007. Its greatest stroke of casting plays with the same notion as well, and the younger Gandolfini is a soulful yet primal revelation. To call his performance lived-in is the epitome of an understatement, and it's never a gimmick.
Nivola is equally masterful, especially given that Dickie is torn in almost every way he can be. He abhors his father's treatment of Giuseppina with Oedipal fury, but also has a psychopathic temper. Part of the DiMeo crime family, he runs numbers in Newark with help from his football pal Harold (Leslie Odom Jr, Music), but all his cronies — Tony's father Johnny (Jon Bernthal, Those Who Wish Me Dead) included — couldn't be more overtly racist. The Many Saints of Newark uses the 1967 Newark riots about systemic prejudice as a defining event, too, although it's often treated as window dressing. One particularly spectacular shot sees Tony spy the resulting flames from his bedroom window, and Harold is mobilised to start his own gambling racket afterwards, but that's about as deep as the movie delves on the subject.
It has other things to ponder in its tale about family, crime, loyalty, life and death, as Dickie is just as conflicted about Tony's future. Regarding the latter, The Many Saints of Newark takes a few cues from Breaking Bad prequel series Better Call Saul, with its origin story also a tragedy because we know the only place it can lead to. That's one reason the film blisters with emotion, even if the same standard gangster narrative could've easily been told without any ties to The Sopranos. It's also why all of the expected references feel a bit like a game of spotting the nudges in the moment — including Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) as Tony's mother Livia, Corey Stoll (Scenes From a Marriage) as his uncle Junior, and John Magaro (First Cow) and Billy Magnussen (Made for Love) as his future sidekicks Silvio and Paulie — but ultimately add authority.
Still, in a world where The Sopranos changed TV forever — every television drama has been indebted to the groundbreaking HBO series for the past two decades — The Many Saints of Newark is also the most basic version of the film that plenty have dreamed about since a certain fade to black. It delivers what it sets out to, not just in resurrecting Tony by venturing backwards, but also in fleshing out backstory, grappling with recognisable themes and musing on generational repetitions. It serves up two stellar core performances, as set against handsome period staging. It's a fine-looking movie all-round, and its blue palette conveys a sense of sorrow that perfectly suits its task. But it treads in heftier footsteps and knows it — and while that's part of its message, it's a bit like snacking on gabagool after a hearty, life-changing serving of pasta.