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‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Review: Both Gripping Mob Drama and Gratuitous ‘Sopranos’ Fan Service

Brilliant performances by Alessandro Nivola and Michael Gandolfini help this prequel become a valuable new addition to the Soprano family.

"The Many Saints of Newark"

“The Many Saints of Newark”

Warner Bros.

More. It would be impossible to sum up “The Sopranos” in a single word, but some of them sink to the bottom of David Chase’s storied television epic like a dead FBI informant dumped into the Atlantic. Respect. Family. Gabagool. More. More. More. More. The insatiable desire for more — more money, more power, more whatever the fuck you can take from this world — never crystallized into a slogan the way it would in executive producer Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men,” but New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano was at heart the largest and most perversely likable incarnation of a classic American archetype: The bottomless pit. The double-or-nothing. The never-ending breadsticks. He was the bastard son of a country where everything is for the taking as long as you can live with taking it from someone else; a country unified only by its shared belief that “enough” is a foreign concept.

So while the series finale of “The Sopranos” might be remembered for its ambiguity, the real genius of that sudden cut to black was how clearly it said “that’s it.” No more. Whether Tony got whacked by the guy in the Members Only jacket or wasted away at the Green Grove retirement community some 40 years later, there would eventually come a time when he was forced to cash out with whatever spiritual pittance he still had left, and that time wouldn’t arrive on his schedule. “Made in America” is like a missed reel change between the hunger of wanting more and the emptiness of what comes next; it’s the only satisfying period to a story about someone whose life was never going to end any other way.

And so while the very idea of there being more of “The Sopranos” could seem like a betrayal of the show and its sharp inhale of a last gasp, it’s also inescapably true to the (broadly relatable) behavior that led Tony to that moment. To the mindset that kept him from counting his money and cutting his losses. To the asymptotic trajectory of his therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi and the vision quests he traveled in the final season, both of which saw him reaching toward some kind of perspective before the sheer gravity of his appetite pulled him back down to the myopia of life on Earth (where all of us were left watching the comings and goings of a New Jersey ice cream parlor with the same obsessive scrutiny of the Zapruder film).

For better or worse, but always inevitably, Chase’s long-awaited prequel movie “The Many Saints of Newark” is split between those opposing tendencies. Directed with unfussy confidence by “Sopranos” veteran Alan Taylor, it wants to give people more of a show they love because of how forcefully it argues that more is never enough. The result, almost by design, is equal parts gratuitous fan service and gripping mob drama; a clumsy devil’s handshake of a film that’s asphyxiated to death by the same mythology it also leverages into a masterful origin story about cyclical violence and the sins of the father. The power of a prequel is that it can make everything we’ve already seen feel like predestination, but “The Many Saints of Newark” so insistently renders the past as prologue that it sometimes forgets the past has to be present first.

Of course, any Sopranos family story that takes place 32 years before Tony’s first panic attack would be haunted by the future more than anything else, and “The Many Saints of Newark” stresses that point to the brink of parody by opting to have a rueful Christopher Moltisanti (lit. “Many Saints”) narrate his father’s rise and fall from beyond the grave; the chorus of disembodied voices chattering up from the gravestones evokes a production of “Spoon River Anthology” set in the alleyway behind Satriale’s. Christopher’s voice isn’t heard very often — it bookends the film and helps stitch over its biggest time-jump in between — but the presence of Tony’s beloved “nephew,” who is both unborn and dead at the same time, immediately situates this story as one chapter in a larger continuum.

The device also serves as a blood-stained red flag for any “Sopranos” neophytes who might see this as a good chance to meet the family before they’ve reached their end century high notes. It’s not that Chase and Lawrence Konner’s unconventional screenplay will prove confusing for people who don’t know their goomars from their googootz (the plot is perfectly legible in broad strokes), but watching “The Many Saints of Newark” ahead of the show would be like watching the first two “Godfather” movies re-cut into chronological order (can you even imagine?).

We begin in New Jersey circa July 1967. It’s “the summer of love,” one character wryly observes, and the time of the season for mid-level mafioso and high-end gentleman Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) to make his bread. Dickie is cut from a much silkier cloth than the sweaty gangsters who talked about him in such reverent tones on the HBO show; he’s Frank Sinatra, and they’re just strip mall Nathan Detroits. But the suits are hardly the only thing that’s nicer about him. The guy isn’t exactly a model citizen — the first thing we see him do is stand by as his associate Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) beats the hell out of a Black teenager who’s been stealing from Dickie’s numbers runners — and yet he comports himself with a softness that Tony Soprano couldn’t even manage to fake. Whenever Tony lost control it was like the scorpion stinging the frog; whenever Dickie snaps it’s the stuff of a Shakespearean tragedy. And from the moment his boorish father Aldo (Ray Liotta) returns from Europe with a beautiful Neopolitan bride (Michela De Rossi) at his side, you can feel Dickie’s pinstripes starting to pull tight.

Dickie’s semi-Oedipal urge to kill his father and have sex with his stepmom (who’s even younger than he is) drives the most focused part of a film that rhymes the fire burning inside its hero against the racial tension heating up across the city. Built on the tinder left behind by white flight and then sparked by the beating of a Black cab driver by local police, the 1967 Newark riots may only provide a brief setpiece in this story, but they galvanize the fates of characters on both sides of the color divide for decades to come, in addition to resonating with present tensions to a degree that makes the film’s past feel that much closer.

For Dickie, the spectacle of the unrest provides the perfect cover to get away with murder (a gag pivoting off his white privilege offers the kind of morbidly hilarious touch that made “The Sopranos” one of the funniest shows on TV). For Harold, the riots enflame his long-simmering resentment toward the Italian-American crime syndicate that keeps him under heel, and spur him to make it in this country on his own terms.

The rivalry between Dickie and Harold erupts into an all-out war once the action skips forward to 1971, cohering into the most fully formed and self-contained aspect of a film that has little interest in being either of those things. When “The Many Saints of Newark” works best, it’s because Nivola is absolutely brilliant as Dickie. He plays Tony Soprano’s mentor as an aspiring do-gooder who was dealt a bad hand and doesn’t have the courage to lay it down, and you can feel the rage pooling underneath his fedora, just as you can sense the rotting splendor of a man who would rather offer Tony poisoned love than none at all.

There are so many surprises to his performance — surprises of a much different variety than the big one that Liotta has up his sleeve — and it’s riveting to watch Nivola add some square-jawed style to the same irresistible unknowability that James Gandolfini brought to the series. Vanity instead of pride. Different sins to disguise a shared abyss. “There’s so much tragedy in your life,” someone tells Dickie, and it’s true, but there’s no telling how much of that tragedy the man has caused himself; a supernatural ability to blame other people for his problems is one of the most powerful legacies Dickie leaves to Tony by the end.

Odom powers Harold into a formidable rival, but only in spite of the meager screen time that “The Many Saints of Newark” affords him. Just when it seems like we’re about to watch Harold and Dickie go to the mattresses (a conflict the script escalates with a very contrived bit of sexual mishegoss), the brewing war between them is backgrounded in favor of several overlapping B-plots. Tension fades into texture as Chase fights the temptation to let a conventional film narrative take hold; instead, he retreats into the murkiness of a mid-season episode of an HBO show, spreading his attention to a wide array of familiar characters as they each put up some mild, futile resistance against the various things that will come to define them. Meanwhile, the only payoff to Harold’s story is punted to a mid-credits sting.

Livia Soprano (an uncanny Vera Farmiga) tries to be a softer mother. Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal, redeeming a non-entity of a character through his bulldozing screen presence alone) tries to be a less absent father. Uncle Junior flails around in an effort to compensate for being subservient to his younger brother; he’s played by Corey Stoll, whose slapsticky take on Dominic Chianese’s “Sopranos” performance may be more convincing than the de-aging trickery seen in “The Irishman,” but is no less silly for that. The same holds true for Billy Magnussen’s wing-less Paulie Walnuts and John Magaro’s Silvio Dante, whose character’s big reveal confirms that all these guys are only here for comic relief and continuity.

Of course, nobody does a better job of inhabiting their character’s future shell than Michael Gandolfini, whose performance as juvenile delinquent Tony Soprano is such a lived-in riff on his father’s most famous role that it completely transcends the gimmicky task at hand. If “The Many Saints of Newark” is divided against itself to a certain degree, its script unsure as to how much of it only exists to help shape teenage Tony, the young Gandolfini brings such primacy to the character that every scene he’s in feels naturally formative.

Even though he’s the spitting image of his dad, Michael Gandolfini inherits the film’s most future-facing part with a molten uncertainty that suggests Dickie may have been able to steer Tony in another direction. Tony claims he’s “trying to be good,” but he doesn’t have anyone to show him what that looks like. That only makes it all the more poignant to see him surrounded by the cyclical traps that “Sopranos” fans will recognize like the rounds of a song: Livia’s introduction to antidepressants, pre-teen Tony receiving the same tough love that awaited Vito Spatafore’s son, someone telling a certain joke about a glum-looking horse. One crucial scene is even set at the same place where the series ended, a rare moment when the film adds to the show’s backstory rather than just filling it in. The funereal color palette — a blue-tinted glaze that recalls the morose look Chase introduced to the series finale — helps complete “The Many Saints of Newark” with a purgatorial finish.

But somewhere, often semi-forgotten about in the distant background of this movie, change is afoot. People are reaching for heaven while consigning their own children to hell. All of them are pushing in different directions only to swirl down the same drain, and all of them will end up with nothing, no matter how much they take. “Pain comes from always wanting things,” says the only truly free character in “The Many Saints of Newark.” The ballad of Dickie Moltisanti reinforces that it always has, and that it always will.

Grade: B-

Warner Bros. will release “The Many Saints of Newark” in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, October 1. 

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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