The Many Saints of Newark review: Sopranos prequel is a frustrating inside joke

I should probably get this out there right at the start of this review: I’m not exactly the target audience for The Many Saints of Newark.

Having only watched a scattered batch of episodes across the six-season run of HBO’s The Sopranos — including much of the series’ first season and its controversial finale — there’s an argument to be made that I lack a necessary appreciation of the show’s colorful universe of conflicted criminals and “made men.” And there’s some validity to that assertion. However, I do like a good mob movie, and throughout the development and promotion of The Many Saints of Newark, that’s precisely what the film promised audiences it would provide.

Sadly, that’s a promise the film has trouble keeping.

Jon Bernthal, Alessandro Nivola, and the cast of The Many Saints of Newark.

Familiar names, new faces

Developed and co-written by The Sopranos creator David Chase and directed by Emmy winner Alan Taylor, The Many Saints of Newark chronicles the rise and fall of Dickie Moltisanti, a powerful figure in the DiMeo crime family in Newark, New Jersey, and the uncle and mentor of Sopranos protagonist Tony Soprano. The 1967 riots in Newark serve as a backdrop for a story about Dickie’s attempts to balance his personal and professional life in a city filled with racial tension and threats around every corner, with a young Tony Soprano often on the sidelines, observing the events that would shape his own destiny.

Along with Tony, The Many Saints of Newark features a long list of Sopranos characters in their early years, spanning several generations of the crime family and the enemies they made along the way.

Among the primary cast members, Alessandro Nivola portrays Dickie, Leslie Odom Jr. plays aspiring crime boss Harold McBrayer, and Ray Liotta plays dual roles as Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti and Sal “Sally” Moltisanti. Michael Imperioli also reprises his Sopranos role as mobster Christopher Moltisanti to narrate the events of the film.

And in one of the film’s biggest gambles (and one that ultimately pays off), the young Tony Soprano is played by Michael Gandolfini, the son of deceased Sopranos star James Gandolfini.

Michael Gandolfini and Alessandro Nivola in The Many Saints of Newark.

A pale imitation

Sopranos fans will likely be disappointed to learn that the HBO show’s iconic patriarch isn’t exactly a central character in The Many Saints of Newark, which spends most of its running time chronicling Dickie’s ascension, his romantic entanglements, and the feud that develops with his former enforcer in the region’s African-American community, McBrayer.

Nivola’s performance as Dickie is competent and efficient, and the actor holds his own in scenes with Liotta — a genre heavyweight who delivers double the scene-chewing moments in his dual roles — as well as the immensely talented Odom, Jon Bernthal, and Vera Farmiga, among other fellow cast members.

Any project that develops under the shadow of The Sopranos has a high bar set for it, however, and Dickie’s saga falls short of feeling like the pivotal period in Tony’s life (or the DiMeo family) that it’s been built up to be by the adult Tony in The Sopranos and the film’s promotional campaign. Dickie and the rest of the film’s characters spend most of the story pinballing from one well-worn mobster movie trope to the next, without any of the thoughtful deconstruction of the genre and well-crafted suspense that defined The Sopranos.

At its best, The Many Saints of Newark often feels like a surface-level imitation of The Sopranos, and there isn’t much in the film that mob-movie fans haven’t seen before, and in many cases, they’ve seen it done better in the series itself or various touchstone films of the genre.

Ray Liotta and the cast of The Many Saints of Newark.

Funny how?

When The Many Saints of Newark isn’t sending Dickie on a journey through gangster cinema’s greatest hits, the film is winking and nodding its way through 86 episodes of Sopranos history.

The Many Saints of Newark is frustratingly bogged down by a need to remind its audience of its connection to the HBO series that inspired it, and it takes every opportunity to do so. In one particularly cringeworthy example, infant Christopher is introduced to the family, but cries every time he gets near Tony — a plot point (spoiler alert) intended to foreshadow the latter’s murder of adult Christopher late in The Sopranos’ run. Just in case the point wasn’t obvious enough, though, the film hammers it home by having a character loudly mention her belief that babies are born with a sense of where their life will lead.

Similarly heavy-handed references to events, characters, and relationships in The Sopranos are peppered throughout The Many Saints of Newark, to such a degree that they eventually begin to come off as more distracting than rewarding. While some Sopranos fans will likely appreciate the endlessly self-referential nods Chase packs into the film, they ultimately make The Many Saints feel less like a fully formed story within that universe and more like a long, forgettable flashback episode of the series that inspired it.

Leslie Odom Jr and Alessandro Nivola in The Many Saints of Newark.

Big characters, small roles

It’s no surprise that Liotta delivers one of — or in this case, two of — the film’s most entertaining performances as the film’s most abrasive character and its most sympathetic. His pitch-perfect casting serves the film well while giving it an extra dose of familiarity — and legitimacy — for fans of the mobster genre.

Bernthal and Farmiga also deliver entertaining performances as Tony’s father and mother, respectively, but both of their characters feel a bit underused in the film’s crowded cast. The same goes for Odom, whose story has the potential to be one of the interesting arcs in the film as the racial tension and explosive events of the period push him to challenge his view of the world and Italian-Americans’ control of the region. Sadly, we’re given precious few glimpses of his character’s evolution, and his story feels underexplored and underappreciated in the end.

In its efforts to pump up Dickie’s place in Sopranos history, the film also underserves Tony Soprano himself, with Gandolfini’s role often coasting on the crime boss’ legacy instead of adding to it.

The Many Saints has a habit of telling its audience all the reasons Tony becomes who he is in Sopranos, but rarely gives the younger Gandolfini the opportunity to show the audience the formative moments in that arc. Along the same lines, Gandolfini does well with the screen time he’s given, but his time on screen often has him setting up other characters’ stories rather than expanding his own, leaving his portrayal of the franchise’s most important character feeling limited at best.

Michael Gandolfini, Alessandro Nivola, and the cast of The Many Saints of Newark.

That empty feeling

The Many Saints of Newark will likely be a polarizing film for audiences, pleasing Sopranos fans looking for narrative Easter eggs and hungry for more information about their favorite supporting characters, but disappointing anyone expecting a fresh chapter in the saga that delivers the same level of complex storytelling and dark humor as the series that inspired it.

There isn’t necessarily a bad performance to be found among the film’s cast, but the story itself never comes close to hitting the high marks set by the series, and that ultimately caps the potential of its fantastic cast. In trying too hard to set itself firmly and explicitly within the world of The SopranosThe Many Saints of Newark misses a great opportunity to deliver a powerful movie that stands on its own alongside its award-winning source material.

I might not have watched every episode of The Sopranos, but even I know that Tony Soprano deserved better.

Directed by Alan Taylor, The Many Saints of Newark premieres October 1 in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service.

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