for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity.
Alesandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Ray Liotta, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll
Warner Bros. on
If nothing else, The Many Saints of Newark recaptures the feel and aesthetic of David Chase's The Sopranos, the TV series that was frequently cited as the best television had to offer during the eight years when it was on (and off) the air. And perhaps that's enough, at least for those familiar with the 86 episodes (or at least most of them). As a chance to revisit the world in which those characters lived and spend time exploring their roots, The Many Saints of Newark is an unqualified success, even bringing back the disembodied voice of Michael Imperioli (as the deceased Christopher Moltisanti) to provide some narration. As a standalone film divorced from The Sopranos, it's less successful. The Many Saints of Newark offers little more than a standard-order period-piece gangster story. It's no Goodfellas or Godfather and, for viewers without a Sopranos connection, it may seem overlong and riddled with unnecessary secondary characters and tertiary subplots.
When The Sopranos ended in 2007 with a snap-to-black suddenness that divided the fan community, Chase made it known that he had no plans to move Tony's story forward. When star James Gandolfini unexpectedly died in 2013, any lingering hopes for a reunion were quashed as thoroughly as a Beatles resurrection were destroyed in December 1980. But that didn't mean there weren't more stories to tell. As early as 2010, Chase was toying with the possibility of a prequel. Eleven years later, we have it. With veteran Sopranos director Alan Taylor at the helm and many of the same, familiar craft people in place (including set designer Bob Shaw, who worked on two Scorsese films since leaving Tony behind), it's no surprise that the movie has a strong Sopranos flavor to it.
The screenplay has tendency to meander as it seeks to serve too many masters. On the one hand, Chase wants to fatten up established backstories for many of the main Sopranos characters while introducing individuals who had died by the time the series began in 1999. On the other hand, The Many Saints of Newark seeks to be more than a piece of fan service by weaving what most viewers will expect: a gangster yarn. There's also the sense that this is designed as a set-up for either future movies or possibly even a prequel TV series. The unresolved plot thread of Leslie Odom Jr.'s Harold McBrayer is a perfect example of Chase prepping for future opportunities. Such forethought, however, can be a little frustrating in the present when such "future opportunities" don't yet exist.
The Many Saints of Newark spans roughly a half-decade of time, starting in 1967 and concluding in the early 1970s. As if the fashions, hair styles, cars, and music aren't enough to anchor the date, the first half of the movie transpires in and around the Newark race riots, which occurred between July 12-17, 1967. It's during that era when we first meet the Moltisanti and Soprano crime families, who are linked both by common business interests and marriage. The Moltisantis are represented by the violent, mercurial head-of-the-house, 'Hollywood' Dick (Ray Liotta); his debonair son, Dickie (Alessandro Nivola); and his fresh-off-the-boat wife, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). The latter family is comprised of married couple Johnny and Livia (Jon Bernthal and Vera Farmiga); their son, Tony (Michael Gandolfini); and Johnny's brother, Junior (Corey Stoll). Secondary characters include Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a runner-turned-rival for Dickie and Johnny, and familiar names like Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnusssen) and Silvio Dante (John Magaro).
The main storyline focuses on Dickie's attempts to consolidate power while mentoring Tony. After an accidental murder and a not-so-accidental case of adultery, he finds himself spiritually lacking and seeks to balance out his evil actions with good deeds. Meanwhile, Johnny is sent to the slammer and Livia is forced into single-parent duty, a job for which she is unfit. With Tony running wild, is it any wonder that he is drawn to the illicit gains of illegal activities rather than pursuing his dream of becoming a college football player?
The foremost goal in casting actors and shaping their performances was to evoke younger iterations of known characters. Exempt from this are Alessandro Nivola, who is allowed to craft Dickie from whole cloth, and an unsettlingly intense Ray Liotta, whose presence reinforces the ongoing Sopranos/Goodfellas connections. In both physicality and mannerisms, Michael Gandolfini echoes his late father. He's not a dead ringer but, in certain closeups, the resemblance is evident. Vera Farmiga, who may be cornering the market on overbearing mothers, draws as much from Edie Falco's Carmella as from Nancy Marchand.
There's plenty of violence in The Many Saints of Newark but it's Chase-style violence, not the more graphic form favored by many gangster film directors. Some of the deaths occur with brutal suddenness - a trademark of the TV series. There's enough uncertainty regarding the ultimate fates of some characters that even a seasoned Sopranos viewer will never feel completely sure of where the story is going. As for the ending, suffice it to say that one event the movie seems to be building toward is held in abeyance for a future installment. What we get here, however, is enough not only to whet the appetite but to provide a moderately satisfying meal in its own right.
© 2021 James Berardinelli
Cinemas About Town