Many Saints of Newark Synopsis: Young Anthony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini) is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark, N.J., history, becoming a man just as rival gangster Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) starts to rise and challenge the all-powerful DiMeo crime family. Caught up in the changing times is the uncle he idolizes, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), whose influence over his nephew will help shape the impressionable teenager into the all-powerful mob boss, Tony Soprano.
The Sopranos’ impact on filmmaking is everpresent in our modern, TV-centric culture. Featuring a towering performance from star James Gandolfini and a refreshing anti-hero approach to artform’s family-friendly image – The Sopranos forever shifted perspectives on what the small-screen can accomplish. Like many viewers, I discovered the series after its initial run and instantly fell in love with its blend of ball-busting humor and introspective, character-driven drama.
Over 14 years since the screen suddenly cut to black, series creator David Chase and company have returned with the prequel film Many Saints of Newark. Chase, co-writer Lawrence Konner, and longtime Sopranos director Alan Taylor collaborate on an ambitious deep dive into the facets that defined Tony’s mafia destiny. The film’s sprawling ambition accumulates some bumps along the road, but Many Saints admirably wears the show’s meaningful textures on its sleeve.
While this prequel presents several new faces, the film maintains the lifeblood of what made the series so appealing. Chase and Konner intelligently intersect Dickie Moltisanti’s rise to infamy through the perspective of the mob’s circular lifestyle. A commitment to the criminal lifestyle presents Dickie with the luxuries of sleek cars and limitless power – but his overwhelming paranoia and the all-too-familiar fate follow him around like an ominous shadow. Star Alessandro Nivola also imbues vitality into Dickie’s journey, with his twitchy unease and genuine regret morphing him into a compelling figure.
I’ve seen many write off Many Saints for being bloated, and while that’s certainly valid (we’ll get to that), I think the film works better in the context of its macro developments. The writer’s keen observations on the Moltisanti legacy complements the famed series without lazily relying upon its appeal. Balancing the allures and harsh realities of mobster life allows audiences to experience Tony’s descent first-hand, ultimately setting up the groundwork for his destiny as a feared mafioso.
The addition of Leslie Odom Jr. as criminal rival Harold McBrayer also adds some much-needed confrontation of the character’s bigoted perspectives – with Harold’s steady rise consistently roadblocked by the family’s lingering prejudices and general lack of respect. The whole cast is impressively seamless in their roles. Michael Gandolfini captures Tony’s aloof charms and burdened misery with genuine impact, while Corey Stoll, John Margo, and Billy Magnussen skillfully convey some of the series’ fan-favorite characters.
I could talk all day about Many Saints’ thematic intrigue, but the real spaghetti and meatballs behind the film’s success come from its effortless re-capturing of the series charm. I felt like a comic book fanboy throughout the film – squealing with glee anytime an old-time favorite appeared and reacting with shock at any new wrinkle of Soprano lure brought to the table. From the hard-hitting dramatics to the intimate family gatherings, Many Saints successfully repackages the series’ allures on the big-screen.
Still, I can see why Many Saints has sustained mixed reactions from diehard fans. Ironically, Chase’s sprawling narrative would honestly make a better fit for the small screen. Several intriguing subplots captivated my interest, but the lack of meaningful follow-through leaves a desire for more (I could have easily sat in the theater for a 10-hour version of this). Alan Taylor’s competent yet unremarkable direction also doesn’t do much to elevate the proceedings, trading the show’s sturdy visual profile for a needlessly bleak visual aesthetic.
Many Saints of Newark left me craving for more in largely positive ways. I hope Chase gets a chance to expand upon this film (a sequel has been rumored), as another project could do wonders in filling in the show’s expansive lore.
Many Saints of Newark is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.
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