The Many Saints of Newark
The prequel to The Sopranos is a well-made if pale imitation of its inspirations
Films following successful TV series seem to take an eternity to get made; so much so that they risk missing their moment of popularity. This happened with Entourage (2015), Baywatch (2017), and Veronica Mars (2014). Those films flopped and held the stench of a group of filmmakers refusing to move on from the past. The Sopranos (1999-2007) was long hailed as the beginning of “prestige TV,” and while the series ended in 2007, its film prequel has only just come out.
The Many Saints of Newark (2021) is the prequel to Tony Soprano’s story. The film takes place between 1967 and the early 1970s. We follow the Italian gangster families Moltisanti and Soprano, who collaborate in their New Jersey zone of influence. Our protagonist is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the next in line to take over his family from his father Hollywood Dick (Ray Liotta) and a mentor to a young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini).
The film is written by original Sopranos creator David Chase, and employs a frequent Sopranos director Alan Taylor in the big chair. Taylor had been struggling to break out into films, having attached himself to some embarrassing fare such as Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Terminator: Genisys (2015). His return to this series’ world helps him rediscover some of his style; he revels in the period-accurate sets, and is liberated with his camera movement. However, Chase as a writer struggles to tell an impactful story.
The Many Saints of Newark is a rather by-the-numbers gangster film, which seems to be more focused at imitating Coppola and Scorsese rather than branch off on its own, as its source material did. Much as with the spin-off films of Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and Snake-Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021), what might in passing have seemed like a cool and mysterious backstory, is unnecessarily overexplained, taking away the mystique surrounding the original character. While Sopranos episodes went into Tony’s past, and featured flashbacks, those nuggets themselves sufficed viewers. Extending each of those scenes into an entire film dilutes the richness of the character work, and leads to a rather inconsequential and unmotivated reason of existence.
That’s not to say that The Many Saints of Newark is on par with the aforementioned spin-offs. By borrowing heavily from the likes of Goodfellas (1990) and The Godfather (1972), its overwrought beats still ooze some of that quality. The film is also aided by a fantastic Nivola, who after years of being shunned as a bit character actor, is given the largest role of his career, and truly shines. Both Chase and Taylor, seemed much more interested in Nivola’s character, Dickie, but kept being dragged back into winks and nods aspects from the show. Perhaps if The Many Saints of Newark had been unshackled from having to be connected to a larger IP, it might have found its creative mettle.
In the end, The Many Saints of Newark is a pale reflection of both the show it is originating from and the films it is inspired by. The story of Tony Soprano is rather left on the backburner, with James Gandolfini’s – the original Tony – son Michael, having little chance to either prove his worth or demonstrate a bad case of Hollywood nepotism in the role that made his father famous. Nivola shines and Taylor recuperates some of his sense of style, in an otherwise rather generic and unoriginal film.