Director: Alan Taylor
Starring: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Billy Magnussen, Corey Sroll
Written by: Lawrence Konner and (also based on characters created) David Chase
Running Time: 120 mins
Release date: 22nd September 2021
The Sopranos was a smash-hit TV series that ran from 1999 to 2007 and is regarded as one of the shows to introduce box sets and binge-watching. This gangster drama also made a star out of the late James Gandolfini. Now we have The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel of the show that gives us the story of Tony Soprano’s days as a kid in a world of violence and crime. Those fans of the TV smash will be licking their lips for this return to their favourite world. However, those unfamiliar with the series may be somewhat bemused.
Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti is a highly regarded crime leader who, working with Harold McBrayer, runs numbers around the local area, collecting money from drug dealers and illegal gambling activities. Tony Soprano looks up to him as treats him like his father, even though his father, Johnny Boy Soprano, doesn’t give him the time of day. Yet Dickie’s world is turned upside-down when his father brings home a new, young wife from Italy and his emotions become conflicted, especially when his father is violent to her. Dickie’s status is rising even if the city of Newark is burning due to riots, and Tony, going from boy to young man and longing to be a footballer yet tempted by the criminal underworld, is being protected.
This is a film for the fans. Co-writer and series creator David Chase has added plenty of characters, situations and Easter eggs for those in the know, which leaves newcomers like me a little confused. You feel that you are invited to a party where you know no one, and you’re left standing in the corner watching everyone enjoying themselves. What also doesn’t help is that the film seems bitty and jumps from one situation to another. We manage to cover five years in the space of two hours, and in that time, so much happens but is never given time to cover fully.
One of the critical moments of the film is a riot in Newark that happened in 1967. This is given some preference in the movie but, again, is rushed through. I found myself wanting to know more about what went on. I know this wasn’t the film’s point, but being a novice to this world, this grabbed my attention.
The film focuses less on Tony Soprano and more on Dickie Moltisanti, a smooth operator. He ran numbers for his father to the head of the criminal underworld after his father died. Yet this is a man with no discernible moral standing. Not giving too much away, he has to reach out to his father’s brother, a man languishing in prison for murder, for life advice. It becomes increasingly difficult to have any emotional connection with the character. When watching gangster movies like The Godfather or Goodfellas, you find yourself drawn to these bad guys, as most do have elements to connect. Dickie may come across as a famous man with his nephew, but if only Tony knew.
For two hours, we get plenty of scenes of the families bickering, plotting and causing acts of violence while Tony watches from the sidelines. Still, the film is an apparent prequel to the series; surely, seeing this criminal world through his eyes would be the movie’s focal point. Having said that, once the riots are rushed over, it’s the character of Harold who becomes the most interesting. A black man in a world of racism and American-Italian slurs. His ambitions of going it alone become the pivotal plot point of the final act, and I wanted more of this.
The performances are all solid. Good to see the underrated Alessandro Nivola given a lead role. Michael Gandolfini, the son of James, looks uncannily like his father and does an excellent job as the young Tony, while Vera Farmiga steals the film as Tony’s mother.
Don’t get me wrong, The Many Saints of Newark is not a terrible film. It would probably work fine if this were a standalone gangster movie without any connections to anything else. I just felt I was being talked down to, expecting me to know who these people are and to laugh at the in-jokes. Instead, I kept thinking this would have worked as a mini-series or a new Soprano show with weekly episodes. As a feature film, it doesn’t ignite the screen and makes you long to see Scorsese’s gangster films back on the big screen.
3 out of 5