Let’s cut to the chase: The Sopranos is the best TV series ever. That’s a high bar for the film spin-off The Many Saints of Newark to meet. However, the film isn’t another TV-to-movie cash grab that just feels like a special double episode. The Many Saints of Newark actually plays little like an episode of The Sopranos. Rather, this “Sopranos story” evokes the spirit of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which is an obvious predecessor to The Sopranos and one Godfather sequel shy of being the best mob movie ever. Like Goodfellas, The Many Saints of Newark is a sprawling odyssey through the violent lives of a mob dynasty. Sopranos fans will find lots to love: there are name checks and references a-plenty to favourite characters and a welcome revival of the what-sausage-is-the-key-to-a-perfect-baked-ziti debate. Audiences who haven’t seen The Sopranos, though, might actually like it better.
Fittingly enough, The Many Saints of Newark stars the next generation of Soprano with James Gandolfini’s son Michael taking on the role that made his late father an icon. Michael Gandolfini has Tony Soprano in his DNA. This breakthrough performance is an exciting turn that reminds Sopranos fans that Tony was actually a good-hearted, decent family man when he wasn’t killing people or beating them halfway to death. One truly sees Tony’s younger self in Gandolfini as he carries him just like his father did. However, he also makes it his Tony in his own right. The future kingpin is still navigating his sense of right and wrong.
The film, however, is not Tony’s tale. Instead, The Many Saints of Newark largely centres on Tony’s uncle, Dickie Moltasanti (Alessandro Nivola). Dickie, father to Christopher (Michael Imperioli), is like Tony’s idol when his own father, Johnny (Jon Bernthal) goes to prison for most of his teenage years.
Saints is a sprawling odyssey that runs just about a half decade in this life of the Moltasanti clan. Dickie, ever the good Italian, lives at home with his father. Temptations ensure when his dad, “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta) returns from Europe with a young Italian girl, Giuseppina (Michaela De Rossi), who can barely speak a word of English but could beat Sophia Loren in a pageant. The desirethat Giuseppina provides is merely an indication of how little the married Dickie can be satisfied. He’s a man driven by the chase. Moreover, he’s always running after others with his gambling racket in which many of his errand boys seem to have sticky fingers. Cue Harold (Leslie Odom, Jr.), an ambitious Black gangster ready to prove his merit.
Saints navigates a huge web of stories that could easily fuel multiple seasons of television as tensions escalate between Dickie’s crew and Harold’s team. The gang wars spark a race riot as Saints taps into the Black Lives Matter movement with themes of police brutality and systemic racism. It’s indeed provocative. Chase’s script explores the protectionism of cultural groups as the Italian Soprano-Moltasanti crew abhor Black people, especially the well-to-do ones who move in down the street. As Saints situates Tony’s suburban kingdom within the white flight of the 1970s, the film accentuates the tribalism that goes hand-in-hand with the keep-it-in-the-family mob mentality. To the film’s credit, Saints has more Black actors in two hours than the Sopranos did across 6 seasons.
It’s therefore both a benefit and a misstep that Saints isn’t Tony Soprano’s story. On one hand, shifting focus takes the pressure off Michael Gandolfini. It allows him to honour his father’s work and it lets James Gandolfini’s take remain the definitive Tony. Sure, Robert De Niro gave a handsome incarnation as a young Vito Corleone in Godfather II despite the bar set by Marlon Brando’s iconic turn, but that’s a lot of weight when one’s father is the template and Gandolfini holds his own. The film, meanwhile, extends its underworld beyond the family origins and observes how the violence of community targets another, creating a seemingly endless cycle.
Dickie, meanwhile, has unsettling violent streaks. He erupts in two crimes of passion that are among the Sopranos’ most surprising kills. (And this is a film in which Dickie tortures someone with auto-shop tools.) Dickie oscillates between doting and irritated when Tony acts like the son he’s always wanted. While Nivola gives a mean and intense performance as Dickie, the mobster is simply not Tony Soprano. There’s a steely coldness to Dickie that one only saw in Tony’s darkest moments on The Sopranos. He lacks the likability that makes Tony such a fascinating man of contradictions.
However, as the film looks to Dickie, it doesn’t meet the weight of expectations set by the series. Let’s not kid ourselves, though: The Many Saints of Newark is quality gangster fare—it’s just not The Sopranos. Writer David Chase and director Alan Taylor might have benefitted from simply dropping the Sopranos connections to let their new mob movie stand on its own terms. As a Jersey-set crime drama, Saints is a potent ensemble piece with two strong lead performances at its core.
Emphasis on “Many” Saints
There are, admittedly, so many subplots that Saints loses focus. An underused Corey Stoll appears as the ruthlessly ambitious Junior Soprano. But the big drama for him is slipping down the stairs. Christopher Moltasanti, meanwhile, weirdly narrates The Many Saints of Newark from beyond the grave. This thread might the one that challenges Sopranos newcomers as it references previous seasons, particularly Christopher’s death at Tony’s hands. The backstory for one of the series great tragedies fascinates as it illustrates how the heartache Dickie causes Tony ultimately breeds the evil that kills his own son.
Then there are appearances and flyby cameos for many Sopranos favourites. Paulie, played here by an unrecognisable Billy Magnusson, remains a diva with his manicured hands and fancy suits. Silvio (John Magaro) humorously finds an origin story for his trademark toupee. Then there’s Tony’s growing interest in racketeering.
Tony’s mother, Liv (Vera Farmiga) frets about his future and delinquent behaviour while ignoring problems of her own. Perhaps more than anyone in the crew, Farmiga summons the fire that made Tony’s mother such a standout character in the early seasons. Like the late Nancy Marchand, Farmiga’s Livia is a firestorm of smother-mother mania. Her intense, fragile psychology finds fuel in her toxic relationship with Tony’s father. In the film’s wildest moment, Johnny fires a gun directly into Livia’s bouffant hairdo. After she quickly recovers from the loud gunshot, Livia fires back with a deadly stare of higher calibre. The Soprano name might define the mob family, but Tony clearly gets his chops from his maternal side.
“Woke Up this Morning”
Despite its inadvertent redundancy, Saints offers further proof that Chase’s handle on mob stories is enthralling. The film’s a stronger outing than his feature Not Fade Away, similar in themes, but rooted in the material he knows best. The Many Saints of Newark is provocative, shocking, bloody, and violent, but it’s also a compelling tale of the American dream. To provide for one’s family, to make a name for one’s self and succeed through one’s endeavours, is Tony Soprano’s motive.
What Chase delivers is potent–there’s just so much of it that it needs a running time as long as The Irishman to let it all play out. And after the film cuts to black, it returns with a post-script that indicates it’s going to do exactly that in another film. As Saints shifts its focus to Tony and Harold in their fight to become self-made men, The Many Saints of Newark brings one kingpin’s story full circle and begins another. When The Sopranos’ signature theme “Woke Up this Morning” rolls through the end credits, it signals not one man born under a bad sign, but two.