There is a line in “The Sopranos” that’s said multiple times by Junior Soprano (Dominic Chianese) in reference to his nephew’s lack of athleticism as a child: “Your father never had the makings of a varsity athlete.” It’s one of the series’s most iconic lines, and in the David Chase-backed prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark”, audiences receive definitive proof of Tony’s lackluster football career — there’s even a scene where Junior repeats the same line to a young Janice Soprano. Yet, the reference runs skin-deep. It’s the perfect distillation of what renders the film a confused assemblage of callbacks with little substance laced in between.
The film’s opening shot is a slow pan through a New Jersey graveyard, as a sardonic Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) narrates — a technique reminiscent of great mob movies of the past, namely “Goodfellas,” with Henry Hill’s retrospective, tragic chronicle of wiseguy life. Actor Ray Liotta, who played Henry Hill, also lends his signature mob boss charm to “The Many Saints of Newark,” this time, as ‘Hollywood Dick’ Moltisanti.
The turmoil of the Dimeo crime family and 1970s social unrest in Newark form the base of the film’s drama. Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) is the suave uncle of a young, starry-eyed Tony Soprano, played by Michael Gandolfini, son of the original Tony Soprano, the late James Gandolfini. Following a domestic spat in which Hollywood Dick pushes his new, much younger Italian bride (Michela De Rossi) down a flight of stairs, Dickie kills his father by repeatedly smashing his head into the steering wheel of his car. It’s a moment of pure carnal violence that ruptures Tony and Dickie’s relationship, as the beleaguered Dickie attempts to sever ties with a now-adolescent Tony.
Gandolfini’s young Tony is indistinguishable from the Tony of the original series. He’s an incendiary yet strikingly earnest kid who idolizes his uncle, a man mired by self-hatred, violent impulses and somewhat Oedipal inclinations. Yet, the film fails to cogently flesh out how Dickie and Tony’s short-lived dalliances into the New Jersey crime scene were able to materialize into experiences that alter the trajectory of his life. “The Many Saints of Newark” posits that this relationship was central to his formation into the hardened mafioso of “The Sopranos,” but falls flat in its unconvincing portrayal of Tony’s requisite downward spiral.
The film’s position within the historical context of the 1967 Newark riots also feels tenuous. The riots, instigated by a killing of a Black man by police, serve little narrative purpose in the film, other than providing a cover for Dickie to get away with murder. The use of historical racial tension to provide a backdrop to the film’s drama is a questionable choice and serves to muddy the film’s thematic waters.
An article published last week in The New York Times titled “Why is Every Young Person in America Watching ‘The Sopranos?’” seeks to explain some of the reasons behind the show’s recent uptake in young viewership. Since last March, the world seems to have reentered its “The Sopranos” era, with hours spent streaming the show on HBO Max tripling over the course of the pandemic. As such, it comes as no surprise that Chase and HBO would want to tap into this excitement and capitalize off of young people’s recent Sopranos obsession — it’s just a shame that they didn’t do it in a more interesting way. “The Many Saints of Newark” racks up its share of sins, failing to atone for its underwhelming performances and flat retroactive character development.
What made “The Sopranos” a defining work of television of the 2000s was its skillful ambiguity and rich characters — two virtues that the prequel sidelines. Instead, the film produces a hollow narrative devoid of anything to anchor it to the original show other than a few Easter eggs. “The Many Saints of Newark” is a profanely mediocre, intermittently alluring attempt to recapture some of the original series’ glory — an ambitious feat that never should have been attempted in the first place.