Photo: ‘The Many Saints of Newark’
In a world where bygone titans of television like ‘Breaking Bad’ (2008-2013) and ‘Downton Abbey’ (2010-2015) have been shlacked with unnecessary and unorganized filmic epilogues, it was only a matter of time until the “Godfather” of them all received a postscript of its own. Alas, David Chase’s monumental crime saga revolving around the legendary James Gandolfini’s conflicted mafioso Tony Soprano; ‘The Sopranos’ (1999-2007), has been the latest reluctant “return to the well” to be produced by the ever-looming IP overlords of Hollywood. While appendicizing what many claim the greatest TV series of all time and what is commonly asserted as the formal inception of the “prestige television” era may seem a hopeless cause before cameras had begun to roll, fans of ‘The Sopranos’ found their excitement abound as news of the project began to percolate industry circles.
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For starters, the film’s kitschy title; ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ (2021), immediately clued prospective viewers in on the primary tether the film would forge with the show; focusing on the Soprano’s folkloric uncle Dickie Moltisanti, father of Michael Imperioli’s Christopher. Then came the revelation that actor Michael Gandolfini, son of the show’s late patriarch, would portray a young Tony Soprano making his way through the tumultuous 1967 Newark race riots, leading to excitement levels reaching their ultimate impasse. Although ‘Thor: The Dark World’ (2013) director and frequent ‘The Sopranos’ collaborator Alan Taylor’s ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ never rises to even the worst installments of the 83-episode series, the film offers long-time fans enough in-universe easter eggs and first-time viewers enough nuanced world-building to keep them engaged from the first frame to the last.
A Sopranos Story… Kind Of
No poster for ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ can be found without the adorning tagline “A Sopranos Story” in equally bold font right beneath the title. It is clear that both the creatives behind the scenes and the financiers who gave the project the go-ahead view ‘The Sopranos’ as an uber profitable IP above all else, and as such the film has been marketed as an unmistakable extension of the beloved series, aka a Sopranos story through and through. While the reasoning behind this strategy is understandable, the film itself feels only tangentially related to the show in any meaningful form, and save for a few recognizable familial figures and eerie post-mortem narration the film could have centered on a completely different set of criminals without any real alteration to the plot.
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As mentioned before, ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ centers on ‘Face/Off’ (1997) star Alessandro Nivola as Tony Soprano’s fabled uncle Dickie Moltisanti, the man said to have unwittingly shepherded Tony into a life of crime. The entire film is narrated from beyond the grave by *spoilers for ‘The Sopranos’ (it’s been 14 years, watch the show!)* Imperioli’s Christopher; Dickie’s only son and Tony’s fated protege. The story picks up with the return of Dickie’s father – a woefully mediocre Ray Liotta as ‘Hollywood Dick’ – from Italy with a young Italian wife named Giuseppina portrayed by Michela De Rossi. Dickie and his father are both soldiers for the DiMeo crime family, alongside the likes of Jon Bernthal’s ‘Johnny Boy’ Soprano, Corey Stroll’s ‘Junior’ Soprano, and Billy Magnussen’s ‘Paulie Walnuts’ Gualtieri – all prominent figures in the show. Adrift amongst the family is a young Tony Soprano, son of ‘Johnny Boy’ and Vera Farmiga’s Livia, who shares a special bond with his uncle Dickie.
The gang operate out of Newark, New Jersey, and quickly come to blows with the riots that swept the city and the country during the “Long Hot Summer of 1967” after an innocent black cab driver is beaten and imprisoned by the Newark police. Joining in on the riots is ‘One Night in Miami…’ (2020) star Leslie Odom Jr.’s Harold McBrayer, an ambitious African-American associate of Dickie looking to find his way to the top of the world of crime by any means necessary. After Dickie’s father is killed and Harold strikes out to forge his own criminal empire, the two are set on a destructive collision course that coincides with Dickie’s frenzied descent into paranoia as he attempts to balance his responsibilities to the family and a budding affair with his father’s widow. The story certainly doesn’t add anything particularly new to the “morally-ascue mobster fights his own demons as their house of cards come tumbling down around them” subgenre of crime dramas, but it does offer an adequately stylish spin on the worn-out tropes that keeps the gears from feeling rusted beyond operation.
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‘The Many Saints of Newark’ – A Mixed Bag of a Cast With Some Hits and Some Misses
In a story that recasts iconic portrayals from the original show with younger counterparts, there is bound to be an immediate comparison between the characters fans know and love and the new actor stepping into their shoes. To get the elephant out of the review up front, Michael Gandolfini absolutely delivers as Tony Soprano, the role that made his father an international superstar. From his uncanny facial tics and vocal inflections to his brutish physicality and knowing schmear, Gandolfini shines in every scene he is in. But therein lies one of the film’s greatest hurdles; Tony Soprano is on screen for no more than fifteen minutes in total. For the first 45 minutes, the film features a pre-adolescent Tony portrayed by William Ludwig.
Following the four-year time jump that happens near the film’s midway point, Gandolfini’s Soprano is still more of a thematic afterthought up until the last ten or so minutes in which his character is catapulted to the emotional foreground. As for the other actors taking up mantles left behind by greats like Nancy Marchand, Dominic Chianese, and Tony Sirico, most of the actors share either a fledgling resemblance or acute gravitas that keep their portrayals from feeling like a parody. Stroll and Farmiga are particularly noteworthy as Junior and Livia Soprano, two of the original show’s most memorable characters, each striking a satisfying chord between their own unique inflections and the legacies they are forced to lean into headfirst.
When it comes to the actors tasked with crafting their own fresh and unminted characters, there is a heavy dose of both pleasant revelations and shocking misfires. Alessandro Nivola does a perfectly adequate job bringing to life the “tired gangster” motif audiences have seen countless times before, injecting a certain rabid charisma that keeps his character from feeling like a complete cardboard cut-out of Henry Hill or Tony Montana. While every minute he is on screen is a subconscious reminder that the film has chosen not to focus on young Tony, Nivola makes the character of Dickie Moltisanti, an engagingly tragic figure in his own right worth the price of admission.
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The same cannot be said for the first of Ray Liotta’s dual performances as a pair of twin brothers, in particular the first of said portrayals; ‘Hollywood Dick’. While the prospect of Liotta returning to the world of crime that defined his career after his collaboration with Martin Scorsese on ‘Goodfellas’ (1990) may have had gangster film-buffs salivating, the end result is a discouragingly flustered turn in which every word is forced from his mouth and his face is locked in a perpetually bewildered gawk. His take on the surprise second brother Sally is gratefully more restrained, but a bad taste is sure to linger in the audience’s mouths leftover from Liotta’s stink fest in the first act. Odom Jr. is expectedly terrific in the small corner the film boxes him into, only related to the plot when the story necessitates it and given no internal motivation other than personal ascension.
Grappling With The Legacy of ‘The Sopranos’
It is truly impossible for fans of the show to approach ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ as anything but an extension of the series and its legacy. When judging it using that criterion alone, the film is sure to fall flat for many and enrage many more. But if one accepts that the film is attempting to carve its own path in a broad universe of hitmen and racketeers, then much of the unattainable expectations will be taken off of the film and a fair deal of enjoyment can be found. Yes, this is technically “a Sopranos story” (written and produced by the same team that brought the show to life a decade and a half prior), but at the end of the day it is not “the Sopranos story”, and it should not be evaluated as such. There’s a lot to take in with the latest entry into this storied saga, a lot good, a bit of bad, and a whole lot of gabagool.
Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stroll, Billy Magnussen, Michela De Rissi, Michael Imperioli
Cinematographer: Kramer Morgenthau | Editor: Christopher Tellefsen | Score: Peter Nashel
Director: Alan Taylor | Writer: David Chase, Lawrence Konner | Producers: David Chase, Lawrence Konner, Nicole Lambert
By Andrew Valianti
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Andrew Valianti is a writer and an aspiring producer-director, and all-around film lover. While writing both features and reviews for the Hollywood Insider, Andrew has focused on the intersection of cinema and politics as they relate to empowering diverse stories and viewpoints. Through both study and practice, Andrew has seen first hand the many ways in which film and media can have a positive and meaningful impact on everyday lives. His personal views align with the Hollywood Insider, as he views journalism as a means to empower and mobilize positive change rather than spread gossip or negativity. He believes that art ignites action and has sought to pursue stories that further this goal.