Whether you call it a spin-off, a prequel, or a companion film, The Many Saints of Newark is inescapably tied to David Chase’s HBO show, The Sopranos, which is still one of the greatest television series ever made. Who Made Tony Soprano, the movie’s poster blares, with its actual title in a far smaller font underneath. Written by Chase and Lawrence Konner and directed by the Sopranos mainstay Alan Taylor, the film is set decades before the show and mixes a self-contained drama of 1960s Mafia life with backstory targeted at devoted fans of the series. Separately, both elements largely succeed; together, they never quite gel into a cohesive narrative.
Even a simple question about The Many Saints of Newark is damning: Would a non-Sopranos viewer bother watching it? The film is narrated by the TV-show character Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli), who, within minutes, references a crucial plot point about his arc on the series that was revealed in one of the final episodes. Fans will remember the story line; newcomers, I imagine, will be baffled. The Many Saints of Newark is more of a curious side project than a distinct work. That was probably inevitable: The Sopranos is too sprawling for a straightforward prequel treatment, and Chase is too ambitious a writer to follow a known formula. The result is a movie that, ironically, might have functioned better as a TV show.
If the film, which is in theaters and on HBO Max this Friday, has a protagonist, it’s Christopher’s father, the Jersey gangster Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Though Dickie never appeared on the show, he was occasionally mentioned with admiration as a wild-card mafioso of decades past. The movie builds out his character, demonstrating the doubt he felt about the horrors of his line of work and his inability to escape it. His compatriots—tough-guy Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), his squirrelly brother Junior (Corey Stoll), and his raging father, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta)—don’t seem to feel that same guilt, and the film mines fresh drama from their petty rivalries. As ever, Chase has a gift for scripting nonchalant mobster dialogue that’s weighted with humor and tension, emphasizing the strange mix of egotistical masculinity and careful decorum that goes into being part of the Mafia.
But Dickie’s moral conflict feels like a duller echo of many other mob tales. His chance for redemption lies in Johnny Boy’s son Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini), a younger version of the TV show’s protagonist. Dickie takes the boy under his wing while Tony’s father does a stint in prison, trying to keep him from a life of crime. The casting of the late James Gandolfini’s son is moving and sometimes spooky to behold—Michael’s resemblance to his father is undeniable, down to his awkwardness. Still, the younger Gandolfini’s captivating performance can’t create stakes where there are none; even the most casual viewer knows where Tony will end up.
Building a story around a foregone conclusion diverts time away from other narrative eddies, such as the grander war that brews with a Black gang led by Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a former associate of Dickie’s. The gang’s rise in the city, which erupts into the 1967 Newark riots, is fascinating: McBrayer begins the film as Dickie’s lackey and ends it as an independent leader. But the subplot doesn’t have enough space to breathe, despite Odom’s strong work. The seething animosity between Johnny Boy and Junior, alluded to on the show, mostly plays out off-screen; their relationship felt juicy to a Sopranos nerd like myself, and I wish it had gotten more attention. Several great actors drop in to portray younger versions of beloved characters: Vera Farmiga rises to the challenge of depicting Tony’s depressed mother, Livia, and Billy Magnussen and John Magaro are distractingly cartoonish as Paulie Walnuts and Silvio Dante. Their homages, good and bad, are fun to watch but can’t escape the gravity of their forebears.
One of the filmmakers’ strangest decisions was casting Liotta to play both Dickie’s father and his imprisoned uncle, one a furious nightmare and the other a blissful-but-blunt dispenser of advice. Liotta is fantastic as both, but I wanted more time with each of them, just as I craved further depth for Odom’s character, or more backstory about the elder Sopranos. A number of the observations about the strictures of gangland life that The Many Saints of Newark bumps up against are compelling, but the film is a victim of its own compression, telling a season’s worth of stories in two hours. I walked out of the theater itching to rewatch the show that inspired it—but I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.