Though The Many Saints of Newark does have issues, strong performances from Michael Gandolfini and Leslie Odom Jr. make this Sopranos prequel worth watching.
When I first heard about David Chase developing a prequel film to his legendary HBO series The Sopranos, I was skeptical even as a fan of the show. There are a couple of reasons for that: the first is that the show ended with a much-maligned finale, and the second is that I wasn’t sure the film was necessary. Given James Gandolfini’s tragic death in 2013 and the series already being regarded by many as one of television’s greatest ever, was a jump to the big screen really something that was needed? Personally, I thought that David Chase would have had to come up with something really special to make a return to this universe worth it. The Many Saints of Newark isn’t exactly special, it ends up being just fine. Some head scratching choices overshadow the good things, here, and keep it from being great.
The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel to HBO’s The Sopranos that takes place in Newark, New Jersey during the 1960s and 1970s. It focuses on Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a soldier in the DiMeo crime family, and the father of original series character, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). Dickie was an unseen, but frequently referenced character in The Sopranos. Many Saints follows a brutal gang war through the eyes of Dickie, his teenage nephew, Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini), and Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.).
In terms of what’s good about The Many Saints of Newark, you have to start with the characters of Tony Soprano and Harold McBrayer. They make the film worth watching, and their individual stories are great. Michael Gandolfini, the son of James Gandolfini, portrays a younger version of his father’s iconic character and nails it. There were plenty of times where I forgot I was watching Michael as Tony instead of James. The younger Gandolfini manages to make Tony his own though, he brings a more expressive, and emotional version of his father’s character to life. If only his journey were given more time to flourish within the story. There are subtle seeds of the charismatic mobster that Tony would become in Gandolfini’s portrayal, but his character development doesn’t work as well because of the lack of time he actually spends onscreen. Odom Jr.’s Harold has a similar problem, though his arc is handled better than Tony’s. Harold is charming, calculating, and ruthless when he needs to be: he’s a character that definitely belongs in this universe. You actually see Harold do things and develop, and aren’t just told them, which Many Saints does too often with Tony. If only these characters were the primary focus of the film, rather than Dickie.
Speaking of Dickie, he’s my primary problem with this film. I honestly groaned whenever The Many Saints of Newark switched back to his perspective. Without giving too much away, he’s just not a character that you want to root for, and that makes it harder for the audience to get invested in him. It also doesn’t help that, because he’s the narrative’s primary focus, he takes away valuable screen time from two more interesting characters in Harold and Tony. The saving grace of this script is the fact that Dickie, Tony, and Harold do interact from time to time. If I had to sit through a good chunk of the film, say 30 minutes or so, that just involved Dickie, I would’ve probably walked out of the theater. If there is one aspect of Dickie’s character that I liked, it’s his interactions with Tony and how this film manages to play with the history that has already been set up by the show. James Gandolfini’s older Tony loved and admired Dickie enough to take his son Christopher under his wing. Seeing that relationship play out on screen definitely adds a new dimension to the original series, which is about all you can ask out of a prequel.
The supporting cast around Dickie, Tony, and Harold is mainly underused in The Many Saints of Newark. Some of them take part and add to the arcs of what I would call the main trio. However, there are others that seem to be there just because the timeline requires it, or even to set up appearances in a potential sequel. It is interesting to see younger versions of certain Sopranos characters, like Livia Soprano (played by a Vera Farmiga that is clearly having fun playing a campier role). That’s mostly because I didn’t think I would ever see these characters again.
Overall, there are positives and negatives with The Many Saints of Newark, but I thought it was fine. I enjoyed seeing the characters again, even if some were underused, and the performances of Michael Gandolfini and Leslie Odom Jr. really kept me interested. It’s a shame that one character, Dickie, and his arc (when Tony and Harold aren’t involved in it, that is) takes away from time that would’ve been better spent with the other members of the main trio. This is a return to the world of The Sopranos that is ultimately just fine, rather than a film that matches the greatness of the original series.
The Many Saints Of Newark was released in US theaters and on HBO Max (where it will be available for 31 days from theatrical release, only on the ad-free plan) on October 1, 2021.
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