Existing in its own strange netherworld reminiscent of the squared-off swamps between overpasses that one drives past on one’s way to the airport, the Sopranos prequel film The Many Saints of Newark, which hit theaters and HBO Max this past weekend, definitely catches the eye and certainly makes one question: What sort of hearty creatures can possibly live down there? The answer is tough stuff for sure, but nothing you’ve never seen before, and as such is perhaps a little disappointing. You’re hoping for three-eyed crocodiles and cement shoes, but it’s just the same old ducks our main mobster Tony Soprano once fell in love with—a little younger and a little prettier to be sure, but in exchange, they can’t help but come off like slightly less wise of guys this go-round.
The film takes us back to New Jersey (where else) in the late 1960s, and introduces us to a character we’d only heard tall tales of in the six seasons of The Sopranos: Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father to Christopher (played on the series by Michael Imperioli, who narrates the film) and a father figure to young Tony (played uncannily as a teenager by the late James Gandolfini’s son Michael). On the show, Tony always spoke of Dickie as a king—and here, through Christopher’s voice, we get a different myth of the man. Turns out he’s much more man-sized this way, although mythic still (just in weird Oedipal ways). Spanning several years, the film watches Dickie usurp his father (Ray Liotta), have an affair with his father’s second wife (Michela De Rossi), and make fast friends and even faster enemies with the leader of a Black crime syndicate (Leslie Odom Jr.). All this while Newark burns around them and little Tony watches on, soaking up all the wrong lessons that will eventually lead him to a string of his own Oedipal-ish panics and that fateful chair in Dr. Melfi’s office. And, of course, said six seasons.
Written by Sopranos creator David Chase and frequent series scripter Lawrence Konner and directed by frequent series director Alan Taylor (whose television work, for this show and Game of Thrones, far surpasses his film work on such illustrious titles as Thor: The Dark World and Terminator: Genisys), The Many Saints of Newark indeed attempts to straddle both the television and movie space. It feels at times like we’re speeding through the greatest hits of what could have been an entire prequel season to the original series, and one comes to wish it was. It’s both too much and too little. It feels cruel to complain about too many characters when you’ve got so much richly etched character-work happening, especially from leading man Nivola, a ridiculously talented actor who we’ve been wanting to call a “leading man” for a decade at least. (Go watch him in Disobedience right this minute.) And he delivers here, making a charismatic and richly conflicted monster out of Dickie, whose good-seeming impulses can dissipate like smoke, right through the rubicon, before even he’s noticed.
I’d have happily watched 20 full hours of him, and the many other staggeringly talented actors that Chase and his collaborators were able to wrangle up for this thing. There’s not a bad apple in the bunch. The young Gandolfini proves an appealing presence, and Ray Liotta does surprisingly subtle work in an unexpected double role. Meanwhile, De Rossi, who plays Dickie’s step-mother and lover Giuseppina fresh off the boat from Italy and dropped right into a phalanx of disastrous options, gives the film a whole lot of fire and heart. She and Nivola have terrific chemistry—while it lasts, anyway. My personal faves from the youthed-down pack were Vera Farmiga and Billy Magnussen playing the younger versions of Tony’s mother Livia and a jumpsuit-inclined Paulie Walnuts, respectively. They each manage to overcome somewhat distracting nose prosthetics to echo the original actors while also enriching the character’s histories in ways I didn’t see coming.
But if it’s cruel of me to complain about such riches, it’s crueler of the film to never really figure out what it’s going to do with such bounty. Big themes feel sketched in: As no surprise if you’ve watched The Sopranos, there’s a lot about the sins of the father, the cycles of violence, the past repeating itself, and the legends we build and their ugly underbellies. But the film ultimately feels like a double-triple underline on the rich stuff that the show had more room to explore, and did, for six full seasons. And what this movie’s trying to say about race relations, a subject which takes up a good portion of its run time thanks to its setting against the 1967 riots set off by the police beating of a Black cab driver named John William Smith, I have no idea. Racism is there in the film, it happens and it is definitely (thankfully) implied to be bad, but beyond that it’s mostly backdrop—a lot happens because of Odom’s character, but his experience feels like an afterthought by the film. It ends, like so much interesting stuff in here, stranded in Nowheresville, without an on-ramp of its own.
The Many Saints of Newark opened in theaters on Oct. 1, 2021, and is available for streaming on HBO Max through Oct. 31.
Header Image Source: HBO Max/Warner Brothers