The Many Saints of Newark, 2021.
Directed by Alan Taylor.
Starring Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Corey Stoll, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, Leslie Odom Jr., Michela De Rossi, Joey Diaz, William Ludwig, Matteo Russo, Spenser Granese, Phyllis Pastore, Danny Schoch, Rob Coletti, Chase Vacnin, Nick Vallelonga, Lesli Margherita, Gabriella Piazza, Samson Moeakiola, Lesli Margherita, Daryl Edwards, Alexandra Intrator, Robert Vincent Montano, Stephanie Purpuri, and Rylee Moschetto.
Young Anthony Soprano is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark, N.J., history, becoming a man just as rival gangsters start to rise up and challenge the all-powerful DiMeo crime family. Caught up in the changing times is the uncle he idolizes, Dickie Moltisanti, whose influence over his nephew will help shape the impressionable teenager into the all-powerful mob boss, Tony Soprano.
Aside from recognizing the theme song, I know absolutely nothing about The Sopranos, so it’s advised only to keep reading this review for an outsider’s perspective. With that said, The Many Saints of Newark is a mostly self-contained and easily accessible prequel to the highly regarded series (its creator David Chase also writes the script alongside Lawrence Konner) exploring the relationship between a young Tony Soprano (at one point played by Michael Gandolfini, the son of James Gandolfini and who initially made the role famous) and his uncle Richard ‘Dickie’ Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola, carrying the load of the story with twisted charm and intimidating force).
Directed by Alan Taylor (seemingly back in a more comfortable element once again collaborating with HBO following a string of blockbuster disappointments), The Many Saints of Newark may feel rushed and narratively scattershot at points, but the saving grace is that considering it’s relatively simple for anyone to figure out who is who and who they are related to, it’s also easy to imagine that loyal fans that have been anticipating this long-gestating prequel will be locked in early and along for the ride, especially noticing direct connections or amusing callbacks to the TV series. The film certainly feels made-for-TV in a sense and on a shorter than usual budget for the genre (and even when that budget is being flexed its for the cliché of someone walking away from an exploding building), which also doesn’t really matter as the colorful characters and superbly talented actors embodying them liven the story up at nearly every turn.
Starting in the late 1960s, there’s also an uprising from the Black community, which allows for some stark parallels to current events. Chief among the individuals sparking that revolution is Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), contemplating standing alone in the mafia world, sparking a turf war between some of the other families rather than answering and remaining subservient to the Italians. And while aspects of that narrative arc progress a little bit too fast, it’s nonetheless captivating watching the story tackle and dedicate so much time to the revolution. Of course, it does also weave into the lives of the Moltisantis (which translates to Saints in English).
Meanwhile, Dickie spends his free time looking after and encouraging an elementary school-aged Anthony Soprano (William Ludwig) to obey his mother Livia (Vera Farmiga) and stay out of trouble (Anthony’s father Johnny, played by Jon Bernthal, goes to jail early on). In addition to that and the daily stresses of Mafia life getting to him, he’s also increasingly getting irritated watching his abusive father Aldo ‘Hollywood Dick’ Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, brilliant here portraying polar opposite dual roles in a creative choice that brings moving pathos to the overall narrative) rough up his new Italian immigrant love that is at least half his age, Giuseppina Bruno (Michela De Rossi delivering an impressive sympathetic turn that should land her more work). Without giving too much away, this leads to some affairs suggesting that her life would be better with Dickie.
Perhaps that’s true, to an extent. It’s also clear that the inherent sexism in such mafioso families also runs inside Dickie as he practically goes out of his way to undermine Giuseppina’s beauty parlor ambitions. The juxtaposition here is that the older Tony gets, the more he’s convinced his nephew could be a star football player and encouraging those college dreams while unknowingly pushing him toward a sinister path similar to his own. One character states that the best thing Dickie could ever do for Anthony is to stay out of his life. As we time and time again watch Anthony observe and feel the impression his uncle makes, even during violent outbursts that no child should ever see, there’s an uncomfortable dread for the feared man Tony is inevitably going to become.
Again, there’s no denying that The Many Saints of Newark is jumping all over the place and occasionally drifts away from specific characters so long that it’s impossible not to notice and hope they return soon, but the personalities are so charismatic and likable to be around despite all the horrific acts of brutality and inappropriate jokes that no second feels wasted. Even with its abridged plotting, there are still a few devastating moments proving that it’s easy to care about these characters even with limited screen time. Doubly so when accounting for how it all is shaping Anthony into Tony. That future is something I may have to watch from start to finish finally.
Update: Having watched The Sopranos pilot after writing this review (and fully intending to watch more), there are already clear thematic parallels enhancing the prequel, such as stigmas surrounding prescription medication or Tony not knowing how to compliment or show support to various family members because of his upbringing depicted here. It’s fair to assume that The Many Saints of Newark continues to play on a deeper level getting further into the TV series (and vice versa), although that doesn’t take away from the magnetic characters, volcanic violence, words of wisdom, and tragic bits already here.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com