‘Sopranos’ Prequel ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Is Dry Macaroni With No Gravy

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Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The Many Saints of Newark, David Chase’s return to the organized-crime world of his HBO mob epic The Sopranos, is a project that was up against numerous obstacles from the start. TV shows rarely make a triumphant transition to the big-screen. The original series was a perfectly self-contained affair with an outstanding (and hotly debated) finale. Star James Gandolfini unexpectedly passed away in 2013 at the age of 51, and his son Michael—here embodying a younger version of his father’s New Jersey mafioso Tony Soprano—is a largely unproven talent. And potentially most problematic of all: prequels rarely work, since they explain that which needed no explanation, dramatize that which demanded no dramatization, and fill in narrative gaps that were intriguing precisely because they weren’t filled in.

It’s the last of those issues that hampers The Many Saints of Newark, an origin story (and, at times, a pre-origin story) for Tony Soprano that boasts plenty of its source material’s brutal violence but little of its psychological weight or dynamic interpersonal conflict. Debuting in theaters and on HBO Max on October 1 (following its September 22 premiere at the inaugural Tribeca Fall Preview), the film plays as an addendum marked by respectable performances that pay tribute to familiar characters, some half-baked racial-strife undercurrents, and a comfortable sense of its 1960s-into-early-1970s New Jersey milieu. It’s been designed for those desperate to revisit the gangland that Chase so memorably evoked in his cable-TV behemoth. Yet there’s magic missing from this encore effort, in large part because it never provides a pressing justification for its own existence.

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There’s a Gandolfini-sized hole in the center of The Many Saints of Newark, and to compensate for this absence, Chase shifts his focus to the most influential person in young Tony’s life: his uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a gangster whose surname gives the film its title, and who’s introduced welcoming home his father Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) from Italy. Accompanying Aldo is a beautiful old-country bride, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), for whom Dickie immediately has eyes. At the same time, Dickie is trying to manage Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), a low-level Black hood who doesn’t have firm control of his turf, much to Dickie’s chagrin. Before long, Newark’s 1967 race riots erupt, although as with the rest of what transpires in Chase and Lawrence Konner’s script, there’s no great import to this event; rather, it merely contributes to the heightened tensions between the city’s white and Black communities, which are slowly integrating despite the objections of the prejudiced Italians.

That friction feels authentic but has scant bearing on the actual plot—not that there really is one anyway. Dickie is envisioned as a man torn between noble and base impulses, such that one second he’s rashly murdering those closest to him, and the next he’s trying to do right by Tony (who looks up to him) by steering him away from the criminal life, as well as by atoning for his sins via visits to his imprisoned, long-shunned uncle (also Liotta), whose pointed questions force Dickie to reckon with his dual nature. With a winning smile that can veer into a frightening grimace in an instant, Nivola captures Dickie’s swagger and charm, his volatility and kindness. What he can’t do, unfortunately, is make Dickie more than a generic wiseguy—a situation compounded by the fact that the circumstances he finds himself in are surprisingly routine.

There’s nothing urgent driving The Many Saints of Newark, which—as directed by series vet Alan Taylor—segues between domestic incidents, gruesome hits and stand-alone scenes that allow accomplished actors to do their best pantomimes as well-known Sopranos figures. The finest of that group are Vera Farmiga as Tony’s mother Livia, who even in middle age is never happy and virtually impossible to please, followed closely by John Magaro as hunched-shouldered Silvio Dante, whose hair is a running joke during his brief appearances. Many others do similarly solid mimicry, including Corey Stoll as the bitter and treacherous Uncle Junior and Billy Magnussen as the ferocious Paulie Walnuts. All of them, though, are relegated to peripheral players, leaving the proceedings feeling like a grab bag of fleeting impressions.

Faring worse are Jon Bernthal and Leslie Odom Jr., the former asked to be simply angry and tough as Tony’s dad Johnny Boy, and the latter barely fleshed out as the ambitious Harold. The Many Saints of Newark doesn’t have any meaningful insight into these individuals or their era (soundtrack cuts from the likes of Van Morrison do the emotional heavy-lifting), and consequently, it only truly shines in its smallest details, such as Dickie’s habit of exclaiming “Oh!” in the exact same manner that the adult Tony does (thereby revealing that Tony picked it up from his uncle). Those touches, however, are few and far between, and they can’t compensate for the thinness of the screenplay, which makes passing reference to promising themes—like the Buddhism-inspired idea that pain comes from wanting—without ever seriously delving into them.

Early from-beyond-the-grave narration from Michael Imperioli’s Christopher Moltisanti suggests that Chase intends The Many Saints of Newark to be an act of communing with the dead. Yet that thread is quickly dropped in favor of by-the-books gangster action punctuated by the occasional conversation about Tony, be it Dickie, Johnny Boy and Livia debating whether the high-schooler should continue playing football, Livia and a guidance counselor talking about Tony’s intelligence, or Silvio counseling Dickie about treating Tony right. Those moments strive to provide us with a deeper understanding of the future godfather, but they come across as random notes that are only loosely related to his eventual hang-ups. Consigning Tony himself to the sidelines for much of this film doesn’t help in that regard, nor does Michael Gandolfini’s featureless turn.

A rather abrupt ending implies that there’s more to come from this prequel saga, and perhaps in subsequent sequels, Chase can give us a real sense of the formative catalysts that drove the troublemaking if good-at-heart Tony to fully embrace the family business and, by extension, his more ruthless side. At least in The Many Saints of Newark, however, all we get are faint glimpses of the man who would be king.

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