MOVIE REVIEW: THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK delivers in a rich 1970’s set tale that parallels the popular HBO series


Director Alan Taylor revisits the world of The Sopranos’ five families in this enthralling period tale set during the 1960’s Newark riots.

It would be no small boast to say that HBO’s The Sopranos laid the foundation for what we now call the Golden Age of Television. Without David Chase’s examination of the ordinary life of mafia boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the landscape of television as we know it would be drastically different. The story of balancing his marriage and family with the responsibilities of running a collection crew and his relationship with his psychiatrist (Lorraine Braco) to find some meaning in his life informs shows from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Narcos and beyond. The cornerstone of the foundation of that show is the birth of the television anti-hero in Tony Soprano, a man who is fundamentally amoral, but yearns for meaning from finding a flock of ducks living near his pool to desperately crying out for the love of a mother who cannot express it. The Sopranos is fundamentally a show about one man and how his world informs his decisions no matter his true desires. The passing of James Gandolfini, who embodied that character for 6 seasons, seemingly made a revisit to that world all but impossible.

But David Chase and Lawrence Konner, reteaming with Sopranos’ TV director Alan Taylor looked to that core of what made The Sopranos work; the duality in nature of a made man on the rise and the untenable nature of living in The Mafia to find a thread that could make for a solid re-entry into the world of The Sopranos. That thread being Dickie Moltisanti, the oft-spoken of, yet never-seen father of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), whose relationship with Tony was always seen as a father-son bond and the story of whose demise always seemed somewhat mysterious given Tony’s loving yet tenuous relationship with Dickie’s son Christopher. In this prequel, we see Dickie reimagined as a 1960’s version of Tony Soprano, and the film’s very title, The Many Saints of Newark, is a namesake referring to him directly as much as The Sopranos referred to Tony; ‘Many Saints’ being a translation of Dickie’s last name, Moltisanti, into English.

Actor Allesandro Nivola (The Art of Self Defense) is given the herculean task of being the anchor of this film and, promotional advertising aside, this is 100% the story of his life and growing into a role in ‘this thing of ours’ as much as The Sopranos TV show was about Tony doing the same. We meet Dickie as his father ‘Hollywood Dick’ Montesanti has returned from Italy with his new bride Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). Dickie is married, but having trouble conceiving, and he lives under the thumb of his father in his own home. However, after Dickie learns his father is abusing his new wife, he takes matters into his own hands and in the shadows of the 1967 Newark riots, Dickie takes action to save Giuseppina from his father. As this happens, we meet Johnny Boy Soprano (recast here with aplomb with Jon Bernthal) as he presides over his daughter Janice’s confirmation. We meet many figures familiar to Sopranos fans, from Corrado Soprano (Corey Stoll) to Silvio (John Magaro) and Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnusson), as well as Johnny’s long-suffering wife Livia (Vera Farmiga). Johnny is busted for running numbers at an amusement park, in a scene reinterpreted from the original show, and goes to prison. Time passes, and it is here that we start to really follow Johnny’s son, Tony (Michael Gandolfini), who wants no part of living the mafia life after his father went to jail for four years. Tony worships Dickie, who he views as a father figure, and has come up in the DeMeo crime family since his father’s death and runs Newark as a captain, along with Junior Soprano.

But Dickie is a conflicted man, he does terrible things but wants to be seen as a good person and feel that in his soul. He reaches out to his uncle Sal (also played by Liotta), who has been separated from his family and is serving life after killing a made man. Sal is as far apart from the mafioso life as possible, so Dickie confides in him his dreams and missteps; how he dreams of being a coach for the blind. But also how he can’t make himself happy and the tragedy that seems to befall his life. Sal’s detached advice echoes the sounding board Tony received from Lorraine Braco’s Jennifer Melfi, to further inform the parallel to Tony that Nivola’s Moltisanti serves as.

But while all this is happening, we also follow Harold McBrayer, played by Leslie Odom Jr., a former soldier of Moltisanti’s who flees Newark after the riots fearing for his life and safety after securing money from Dickie after becoming a fugitive. Years go by and McBrayer decides to return to Newark and set up a competing numbers business to the DeMeo crew; one which puts him not only in the line of fire from the Five Families but also to Dickie himself.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have some issues. The film introduces a beautiful framing device that is topped off by having Michael Imperioli’s Christopher narrate the tale of Tony and his father. But, unfortunately, the narration is very inconsistent and its abrupt use at the film’s climax makes it feel like an afterthought or studio note used after the fact. There are many, many easter eggs and fan service for fans of the original show. It doesn’t make the film not work for virgin viewers, but some characters feel superfluous at times as if they’re only there because we know they have to be there given their prominence on the show. While Michael Gandolfini’s Tony is well-acted and he definitely has a future, it does feel like some of his interactions, especially with Farmiga’s Livia, are there just to give fans one more fight with Tony and his mom, or serve as an explanation for something we’ve seen on the show. Thankfully, there’s not too much of that and, for the most part, THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK feels like an alternate version of what THE SOPRANOS was, and the excellent performances from Liotta, Nivola, Gandolfini and Corey Stoll serve that story.

In many ways, the premise of THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK could have served as a follow-up series to The Sopranos. In some ways, it feels like the story of Odom’s Harold McBrayer is designed to be further explored in future films, with this as his introduction, especially in a mid-credits scene that shows his numbers racket in full swing. But the film’s primary offering is as a callback for fans of the original show, which this film delivers in spades. The story of Dickie Moltisanti has always seemed to be one that felt nebulous on the show as Tony served up his father’s supposed killer as a retired cop for Christopher to kill as a sign of fealty between the two of them. THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK answers the story of Moltisanti’s death much the same way The Sopranos often did, with an answer you wouldn’t expect but one that makes perfect sense in the senseless world of the petty Mafia capos and bosses and their minor vendettas. But in doing so, it confirms what we feel we know about Tony Sopranos’ ultimate fate; that no good deed goes unrewarded.