The Sopranos is known for revolutionizing television with its character-led narratives and commentary on morality. The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel film to The Sopranos, reunites series veterans Alan Taylor as director and David Chase and Lawrence Konne as co-writers to expand the series universe through the perspective of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nicola). Moltisanti means ‘many saints’ in Italian, hence the title, adding a layer of irony to the illegal activities and outright torture the DiMeo crime family partakes in. The movie works well on its own, making this new release a solid genre film as well as a prequel story.
Welcome to New Jersey in the late 1960s where Italian mobsters like Dickie wear dressy jackets, shined shoes, and slicked back hair. They carry themselves with a certain air of class and prestige, evident in their nice cars and the lavish outfits their wives and mistresses wear for their nights out. Their dapper exterior allows the unsavory acts, including murder, to go unsuspected despite the gossip around town.
A riot breaks out after the Newark police kill a Black man in broad daylight, and as fire and smoke huddle over the city the wiseguys use this opportunity to get away with crimes that can be blamed on the looters. Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), who manages business for Dickie in the predominantly Black area of town, is forced to flee after he is falsely accused of murder. His absence might be out of sight, out of mind for Dickie and his crew but the racial tensions that are introduced motivate Harold’s return years later, creating a new competitor for the DiMeo family.
Throughout the years, Dickie’s nephew Tony (Michael Gandolfini) has been quietly watching his uncle while his own father, Johnny, is doing time. Despite his admiration for Dickie, Tony dreams of playing professional football. He is hesitant to get involved with the family business, even debating if he should accept stolen speakers for his record player. But while Dickie is dealing with Harold’s return to New Jersey, he realizes that his presence in Tony’s life might be the worst thing for the kid, creating confusion for the teenager who doesn’t know why his uncle has suddenly grown so distant.
The Many Saints of Newark is best when it attempts to fill in The Sopranos universe without relying on nostalgia. Seeing the way Tony idolizes his uncle, first as a child and later as a teenager, brings new layers to the beloved characters that Chase brought to life fourteen years ago. Nivola was given a huge challenge in bringing to life someone who exists in as much infamy as Dickie Moltisanti, and his controlled electricity on screen really completes the formally unseen legend.
Recurring comedic relief comes in the form of Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (Billy Magnussen) and Silvio Dante (John Magaro). These iconic characters are fan favorites from the original show that are known to bring a natural humor to the seasons filled with death, trauma, and intense therapy sessions. The film version of these two, though, is a cheap imitation, bringing uneven Three Stooges-type gags to a film that has an overall serious tone.
Not all of the familiar names are met with such lazy writing in The Many Saints . Corey Stoll’s personification of Corrado “Junior” Soprano Jr. is iconic, showing how clumsy and awkward this future family boss has always been. And you can’t mention Junior without thinking of Livia who is brilliantly brought to life by Vera Farmiga. Fans of the original series know that Livia is the basis for so many of Tony’s insecurities later in life. Farmiga’s constant nagging pays tribute to Nancy Marchand’s original portrayal while adding depth to a woman that has only been seen as a pain in the ass.
There is a particular scene where teenage Tony is talking with the school guidance counselor, an obvious call to the many moments with Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos. When Livia gets to the school, she is annoyed she has to be there. She tells the guidance counselor to make it quick because she is parked in front of a fire hydrant. But soon the counselor’s praise of her son’s intelligence and potential for being a leader breaks down that hard exterior that Livia has built to protect herself after years of being a mobster’s wife. Farmiga’s eyes allow for a certain sentimentality to be seen for a brief second, before she yet again uses the fire hydrant as an excuse to cut the conversation short.
While Tony Soprano might not be the protagonist of this prequel tale, Michael Gandolfini’s inclusion as the teenage version of the mobster his late father brilliantly embodied for eighty-six episodes from 1999 to 2007 is a major draw to the film. He captures Tony’s mannerisms that viewers of the show know well: the way his shoulders hunch when he sits, his smile when he says something smart, his overwhelming confidence that shines despite his unstable home life. Young Gandolfini personifies a boyish innocence that is seen only occasionally in The Sopranos, like when Tony talks about his ducks.
Though the writing in The Many Saints of Newark is decent and the cast is spectacular, the most obvious flaw here is the editing. Too many shots are cut too soon, disrupting any emotion that’s building, and it feels forced as the film tries to cram too many plot points into its two-hour runtime.
Making a movie set in 1967 Newark means the racial tensions that manifested into days of protest hover in the background, ready to appear. However, it feels like The Many Saints of Newark is including them solely out of obligation. Racial injustice in this country is not just a background event, especially in cities like Newark. The screenplay tries to tackle and include more than it can handle with too much focus on adding context to existing Sopranos characters while leaving no room for newcomers like Harold. A longer movie that allowed these storylines to marinate would have been preferable to one that feels so hurried.
The most interesting aspect of The Many Saints of Newark is the continued commentary on male relationships, specifically when it comes to the uncle-nephew connection. Seeing Tony’s respect for his Uncle Dickie from a young age gives even more nuance to his relationship with his own nephew and Dickie’s son, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). This isn’t a coincidence as Chase’s expertise for relationship arcs is always on full display. Christopher even narrates from beyond the grave and offers up a major spoiler regarding his fate in the series.
Much of The Many Saints of Newark calls on other mob films like Goodfellas and even a little bit of The Godfather, but it also quietly continues the deconstruction that takes place throughout The Sopranos. Comparisons to the series are going to happen, especially since the tagline of the film is “A Sopranos Story,” but while the film is not on the series’ level, it’s a fun watch that will either add to one’s love for a world they already know — or serve as an engaging introduction to characters that so many already adore. Either way, it is a decent watch that offers a new glimpse into the lives of characters we thought we knew.