The Many Saints of Newark attempts to revive the Sopranos franchise and set up its future. Does it live up to the hype or remain in the classic series’ shadow?
The Many Saints of Newark begins in 1967. Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) and a young Tony Soprano greet “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liota) as “Hollywood” returns from Italy. Along with “Hollywood Dick” is his young and attractive new wife, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi)– a woman who immediately catches Dickie’s attention.
We are soon introduced to Dickie’s friends and associates in the DiMeo crime family: including Johnny Soprano, Corrado “Junior” Soprano, Silvio Dante, and Paulie Walnuts. The Many Saints of Newark revolves around the lives of this “family” as they navigate the crime world, relationships, and changing times.
I don’t know how many of you planning to see this movie haven’t watched The Sopranos already. If you’re one of them, be warned: this movie offers MAJOR spoilers. Like, the very first scene blatantly spells out a major plot from late in the show’s run.
The Many Saints of Newark isn’t a good place for Sopranos inductees anyway. I got the impression creator David Chase wanted to make this a stand-along movie. And I suppose it does technically work on its own merits. But I don’t know how much of this movie will resonate without some background knowledge on these characters.
My number one complaint of Many Saints is that it lacked focus. My synopsis makes it sound like Dickie Moltisanti is the main character. He’s technically our protagonist, yet Many Saints devotes large chunks of time to other members of “the family” as well. Maybe this would be fine if you already knew who these people were (like I did) or the movie had more time to flesh everyone out. But for the uninitiated, Many Saints looks to feature a plethora of thinly sketched supporting characters who barely serve a function in the story. And for those in the know, Many Saints’ supporting cast is featured to the detriment of characters we’d never met before (like Dickie).
Having so many characters worked for The Sopranos because we had 6 seasons to learn about them all. In The Many Saints of Newark, those people we’d come to know and love are glorified cameos who take screen time from the main plot. If I’d never seen the Sopranos I probably would have been super confused… Now, if Many Saints was an extended pilot for a new Sopranos show, I’d think better of its execution. It’s disappointingly messy as the plot of as a stand-alone movie though.
NOTE: As an example of possible confusion for someone new to the Sopranos universe: The Many Saints of Newark is narrated by a character from the show whom we barely see in the movie. You’d have literally no reason to care about them, and you might even forget who they are if you weren’t paying attention.
David Chase crammed in enough story for 3 movies here: 1) Dickie Moltisanti is a promising young Italian-American gangster who can’t help but get in his own way
2) An origin story for Tony Soprano
3) A former enforcer for the Italian American Mafia decides to strike out into his own crime business for African Americans.
At least stories 1 and 2 were largely connected and had context from the show. That third plotline feels tangential, and it features a character who isn’t even in The Sopranos. Said character (Harold– Leslie Odom Jr) served an important function. But still… I’ll further explain my problem with Plot 3 momentarily.
Much of Many Saints’ story concerns race relations in Newark: specifically between organized crime groups. These elements were intriguing and relatively fresh. I’ve never seen a mob movie which demonstrates the impact of criminal ethnic groups competing for Italian-American territory. As the Civil Rights movement grows and violence in Newark escalates, the Italian population moves to the suburbs– leaving openings in the underworld for other types of gangster to fill. Of course the Italians don’t take kindly to this, and the conflict escalates into a war.
These issues are presented from both vantage points. The Italians feel their power is being stolen away, which plays into their fears of inferiority. These guys are entitled and believe the natural order of the underworld is being disrupted. Meanwhile, the black gangsters are shown as disorganized but passionate. They’re sick of being servants and enforcers and aim to start their own operations. As black people fight for respect in law-abiding society, so must they fight in the streets for respect in criminal society.
As interesting as this plot was, it doesn’t feel relevant to the main story (as I mentioned above). Its function is to add conflict and lead to action setpieces. Mission accomplished there. But the conflict doesn’t comment on our protagonist (Dickie) in any meaningful way, or force him to grow as a person. So it comes across as a hollow vehicle. Dickie also seems to care more about his love-life than the war. Why are we supposed to invest ourselves when it’s not even the main character’s top concern?
Still, the riot scenes were legitimately scary. They were immersive and effective. What makes these moments all the more chilling is that they’re based on true events. One other shoot out scene at a nightclub was scary as well. Beyond these moments, the violence is more contained to domestic abuse and torture. Those scenes were helmed well enough to make me wince.
And how were the characters? I’m glad to report performances across the board were genuinely fantastic. Alessandro Nivola played Dickie Moltisanti with charisma in spades. I couldn’t help but like this guy even though he’s an objectively bad person… Dickie was a layered character: charming but prone to aggression; paternal yet sociopathic; and a killer who maintained somewhat of a conscience.
The Sopranos hyped up Dickie a lot over the years (as Tony’s idol and mentor), so I looked forward to seeing him in earnest. Did he live up to the hype? Not quite. But he was a welcome addition to this universe. One of my biggest disappointments with Many Saints is that it didn’t show Dickie’s alleged struggles with drugs and alcohol (a problem which, in The Sopranos, Christopher specifically said Dickie had). That could have been a compelling angle for the character. Then again, maybe it was intentional. The Many Saints of Newark makes clear that many stories people told of Dickie’s life were inaccurate…
Michael Gandolfini was uncanny as Tony Soprano! You instantly buy him as a younger version of James Gandolfini. Michael might be James’ son, which doesn’t hurt, but Michael made the character his own. This Tony is more innocent and playful than the adult version. And he’s more mischievous than outright criminal. I completely bought that Tony behaved this way as a teenager though. That said: when Gandolfini portrayed Tony’s rage, I instantly saw Tony Soprano from the series.
I talked a bit about Harold McBrayer already: I liked the character (and Leslie Odom Jr’s performance) but his plotline feels out of place in Many Saints. Harold’s story is compelling and arguably would have been a solid movie of its own, yet it felt largely unrelated to the other main characters’ arcs.
Giuseppina’s relationship with Dickie is arguably the aspect of Many Saints which the filmmakers cared most about. And it’s… OK. The character feels more like a plot device than a compelling person. She has her moments which border on intriguing, though they’re few and far between.
Vera Farmiga and Jon Bernthal were solid castings for Livia and Johnny Soprano. Each felt true to their characters on the show but with some new layers in addition. This is technically the first time we’re seeing the characters in this era as they WERE instead of how Tony remembers them. Johnny Soprano in particular comes across as trying to be a good father but not having a clue how to do that. That’s a vibe I never got from him in The Sopranos but it was a welcome interpretation.
I was disappointed to see Big Pussy barely had a role! He was allegedly Tony’s best friend wasn’t he? Meanwhile, Sil felt like an impression of the character instead of a new interpretation. Paulie was great though! His role felt just right.
The highlight for me was Corey Stoll as Uncle Jun. He captured the voice, mannerisms and attitude of Junior so well! Stoll didn’t have a big role in the movie but it was a memorable one.
I actually finished Season 6 of The Sopranos for the first time last week. So the whole series was fresh in my mind for this movie. I was very excited to see what David Chase and company would do! But I didn’t care for the final product. I desperately wanted to though. I reiterate: it’s a better pilot for a Sopranos prequel than it is a movie. I actually struggled a lot in this review to come up with things to say because the plot was that thin…
Many Saints kinda sorta answers what happens to Tony at the end of The Sopranos though… So there’s that. And the ending gave me chills. Those final few scenes kicked ass! Was it worth the whole movie to get there though? Maybe not.
The Many Saints of Newark is entertaining enough If you’re bored.
But this is one of those reviews where I’m gonna cheat and say it’s Worth a watch if you’re a Sopranos fan.
Are you one of those people who watched this movie and not The Sopranos? What did you think of The Many Saints of Newark? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time,
REVIEW METRIC: Don’t bother; If you’re bored; Worth a watch; Pretty darn good; Must see; Watch it A.S.A.P.