Prequels are a tall order. Not only are meaningful stakes difficult because we know who lives or dies, rarely does anything depicted live up to the requisite mystery. The Many Saints of Newark, a drama movie that recounts the early years of The Sopranos patriarch Tony Soprano, flounders in both areas.
From 1967 through to the 1970s – a period of high racial tension within Newark – the DiMeo crime family underwent some radical changes as rival gangs and crews threaten profits. People are under duress, and the shrewd and ruthless see their chance to weed out the competition. Amid the chaos, a young Tony (Michael Gandolfini) evolves from school troublemaker to Mafioso in training, following in his father’s footsteps under the tutelage of uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola).
Between the slicked-back hair, nice cars, and decent suits, the thriller movie gives off the impression of a made man. But behind the smooth dress sense is something desperately trying to be relevant when it doesn’t know what it wants, why it’s here, or who it’s really for.
A broad arc plays out over two parts: first in ’67, then the early ’70s. Dickie’s abusive father, Aldo ‘Hollywood Dick’ Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), has just returned from Italy with his young bride, Giuseppina Bruno (Michela De Rossi). It’s a time of celebration, or it should be – fluctuating money and shifting social politics put a damper on things.
As a callback to some glorious heyday, The Many Saints of Newark is quick with nostalgia. The DiMeo crew coming together for one of their daughters’ birthdays gives the sensation of beloved memories, scenes gliding over many familiar names, now with much younger faces. This carries into business talk, Dickie giving one of his corner sellers a stone-faced warning rather than punishing them for continually not meeting demands.
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Even as a crook and a mobster, Dickie is seen as one of the good ones – better than Junior’s malevolence or Hollywood Dick’s harsh unpredictability. He’s a family man, a positive male influence on Tony’s formative years, connecting with him in a way real dad Giovanni never managed. This is fine, in theory, but the movie is washed out by Dickie representing some cleaner, more romantic way to run the family.
There’s no eroticism or drug use, and little profane violence. Mention of pivoting out of crime seems to be the modus operandi of director Alan Taylor and writers David Chase and Lawrence Konner, who treat this as a chance to show The Sopranos in a different light. By doing so, they rob the whole thing of a backbone.
Without the murder and sex, Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri (Billy Magnussen), Salvatore ‘Big Pussy’ Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola), and Silvio Dante (John Magaro) become caricatures, cliches of the mob that you’d expect from some third-rate Martin Scorsese knock-off. Their new young actors replicate their humour and chemistry, but aren’t a match for the rounded, flawed, hardened DiMeo lifers they’d all become. The villains, we’re supposed to believe, are the ones who were committing hits without mercy in swift succession. These ones, the ones we know, had a separate rulebook.
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By sidestepping the nefarious activities we know they partook in, it’s like The Many Saints of Newark is trying to cover up for its own sins. It’s insincere and shallow, and counter to the warts-and-all depictions that very quickly established The Sopranos as a cultural force when it started airing on HBO.
None of this is helped by the backdrop of the race riots of the late ’60s. This upheaval apparently proved an important catalyst to Tony swinging further toward the criminal underworld. The Many Saints of Newark practically falls over itself at the opportunity to include systemic racial discrimination against the Black community, at the cost of thematic consistency. Real history isn’t an issue, but let’s not act like The Sopranos ever had much to say on the subject of police brutality or anything of the sort.
If not for Ray Liotta, this would be a near-total botch. As the loud, arrogant Hollywood Dick, Liotta embodies the hubris each older generation expects when their children take over. A man who’s clearly got some skeletons laying around, his hysterical laugh makes one concerned for anyone sitting in his vicinity.
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Liotta sees the kind of story this should be and acted accordingly, but nobody followed. And it’s a shame because Michael Gandolfini seems ready to dive into his father’s legacy, but never quite gets the opportunity to. Jon Bernthal’s broad shoulders make him a sound muscle man that never uses his muscles; Vera Farmiga’s barely given a chance to emulate Nancy Marchand for Livia Soprano; on and on, current movie and TV stars are handed these characters for the big screen, and deflated material to play with.
If all you’re looking for are some The Sopranos flashbacks stitched together, The Many Saints of Newark is at least good at that. Michael Imperioli introduces the picture with a ghostly monologue, setting up his father, young Tony, and speaking of how their relationship ultimately ended. Most of the ensemble that were alive at the time are name-checked, just in case you get lost in all the hair gel and grease and forget what this is all for.
It’s just sort of a drag. A dog and pony show for one of the most beloved TV shows ever made that has next to nothing to really say or add on the matter. For all that’s been said about David Chase’s ambiguous ending to The Sopranos, there aren’t all that many questions worth answering if this is the level of response.
“Lately, I’ve been getting the feeling that I came in at the end,” Tony Soprano says in the show’s first episode. “The best is over.” Those really were better days, at least we’re reminded of that.