The Many Saints of Newark is an affectionate but utterly empty and unnecessary return to the world of Tony Soprano.
It always going to be a challenge, if not an impossibility, for any two-hour film to live up to the standard of a TV series which across a number of years and memorable seasons gradually, carefully developed original characters, various narratives, and particular allures. The most recent such attempt that comes to mind is Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which decided to follow the story of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in what was more of an extended trailer for a spin-off than a film in its own right. Whether there’s any real need to revisit faint nostalgia in such a way is indeed questionable, but what if the targeted original series just so happens to be revered as not only the greatest TV show of all time, but one heralded as revolutionary for ushering in what’s usually regarded as The (New) Golden Age of Television? This, of course, refers to none other than The Sopranos, created by David Chase and airing between 1999 and 2007 to the tune of 86 episodes, and its very conception delivers a difficult curveball with which to connect for The Many Saints of Newark, an HBO-produced prequel that still sees Chase as one of the screenwriters and producers behind it and Alan Taylor in the director’s chair, where he previously sat for nine episodes of the original show.
In fairness, The Sopranos has laid such a mammoth and enduring foundation that any new effort, even if only regarded as mere salute to the show’s legacy, can be considered worthwhile. It’s true that the original cast doesn’t return to play their roles or even offer a cameo, and we already know that the tragic loss of star James Gandolfini leaves a void that can never be fully filled — even by his real son, Michael Gandolfini, in the role of a young Tony (and whose appearance naturally and effortlessly evokes his late father) — but there’s still plenty of innate potential to the rich mythos to suspend cynicism. Unfortunately, The Many Saints of Newark (subtitled as “A Sopranos Story”, and advertised as “Who Made Tony Soprano”) is a cocktail of mixed ideas that amounts to an almost complete misfire. Indeed, the film feels more like a left-out flashback episode (or maybe a prologue for a future project) that seems like it’s been released far too late to be considered a special or an extra. The distinct impression is that everyone involved already understands Many Saints to be in an inferior work to the series, and even worse, it plays out like a flirtatious, unambitious call-back that is rarely able to stand on its own and in which viewers are predisposed to constant comparison with the original. In keeping many of the original characters to subsidiary roles in their younger versions here, the plot mostly stays close to the story of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the father of Christopher (originally played by Michael Imperioli) and his escalating feud with a Black ex-associate, Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) who after sleeping with Dickie’s goomar — and the ex-wife of Dickie’s father whom Dickie kind of steals after killing his father — decides to start his own Black crime operation in Newark. In its details, though, this is a gangster story that few would ever care to watch if it wasn’t in direct relation to The Sopranos.
Set against the turmoil and riots of the late-’60s and early-’70s, this “origin story” disappointingly does almost nothing but futilely emphasize some bland socio-political undercurrents in largely straightforward mob flick fashion, which through a set of very cookie-cutter visuals and production designs (as if we’re just watching another The Trial of Chicago 7 but combined with something like a narratively simpler No Sudden Move) follows very unchallenging situations that mostly occur late and wrap up too quickly and easily. Meanwhile, after an hour of a prolonged introduction, young Tony is finally centered, shown sneaking around his uncle Dickie and the other mobs or exhibiting some soft misdemeanors (like stealing an ice-cream van and handing free ice creams over to kids or stealing exam questions or beating up a friend in front of his young girlfriend and future wife). And his relationship with his mother falls flat in execution, offering no new depth or insight into the shaping psychology of The Sopranos‘ later antihero who lives under a dark family spell. In fact, Many Saints finishes when it seems things are only just beginning.
Regardless of the film’s pervasive dark atmosphere, including some shockingly brutal and well-executed scenes and a couple of hyper-textual moments — like when young Tony hugs and welcomes his on-screen father, Johnny (Jon Bernthal) after returning home from prison — there’s really no true characters here for the actors to embody and animate. It’s as if all the characters here are only ever pointing outward to the original series, with the writers never offering an attempt to redefine and redevelop them according to this new context. All that’s left for the actors to do is bear a passing resemblance and mimic the gestures, postures, and expressions of their precedents as if they’re auditioning with an impression in a talent show. At its best, The Many Saints of Newark feels like an agreeable but deeply average tribute to The Sopranos (and especially to James Gandolifini), or maybe a reunion party that takes place far too late. At its worst, it becomes unintentional parody. Admittedly, it’s not entirely devoid of some escapist charms and effective moments, but it’s mostly delivered in the way of any Elvis impersonator in Vegas willing to sweat like crazy to be The King.
You can currently stream Alan Taylor’s The Many Saints of Newark on HBO Max.