The Many Saints of Newark

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When the screen abruptly cut to black at the end of the final episode of The Sopranos, leaving Tony's fate up to the viewer, it seemed like we'd seen the last of this organized crime family. Creator David Chase had other plans. He takes us back several decades with The Many Saints of Newark, showing the genesis of Tony Soprano as the figure we would eventually come to know. But to do that, we first have to know the story of a previously unseen figure who had a profound influence.

Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) is the father of Christopher, one of the major characters in the HBO series. He's a mobster in 1960s New Jersey. When he isn't running a numbers racket, Dickie laments his father (Ray Liotta) marrying a much younger Italian woman named Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). He also serves a father figure to young Tony (Michael Gandolfini) while his own dad (Jon Bernthal) is in jail. It's a tough time for the kid, as mother Livia (Vera Farmiga) is a perpetually miserable crank.

The biggest problem in Dickie's life, however, is Harold McBrayer (the excellent Leslie Odom, Jr.), a Black employee who decides that it's time to stop working for a white mobster and start doing things for himself. This creates an all-out turf war that grows violent.

Storywise, The Many Saints of Newark is all over the place. Those are just the most prominent of the film's plot threads. Time is also devoted to foreshadowing events that would happen on The Sopranos or depicting relationships between certain characters in their early days. (In a stroke of genius, Corey Stoll plays the young Junior Soprano.) On television, Chase had plenty of time each season to let arcs play out. In a two-hour feature, his screenplay, co-written with Lawrence Konner, tries to pack in too much, watering down the end result a bit.

Fortunately, enough of the series' key traits are on display to keep the film compelling. That starts with a detailed depiction of mob life. The Many Saints of Newark takes a fresh approach, looking at how racial unrest during the late '60s and early '70s impacted the mob. The inherent racism of Dickie and others comes out as they see Black families moving into their neighborhoods or, in the case of Harold and his crew, encroaching on their business. Dickie finds himself in a time of crisis. He's worked his way up to a place of prominence, only to realize that the days of easy mob control are starting to fade.

The Many Saints of Newark additionally has the kind of stellar performances we've come to expect from The Sopranos. Alessandro Nivola is unforgettable as Dickie. Without revealing anything specific, the character does two horrific things in the heat of anger, then carries around a massive amount of guilt. Nivola conveys how that guilt eats him up inside. Ray Liotta is good as always, this time in two roles – Dickie's father and his imprisoned uncle. He makes the former a larger-than-life loose cannon and the latter a killer who has achieved a semblance of wisdom from his mistakes.

Casting James Gandolfini's son as the young Tony could have been nothing more than a stunt, except that Michael Gandolfini credibly draws upon his late father's work to create a gripping portrait of an impressionable teen who is susceptible to the bad influences all around him. It's almost tragic how Tony goes from naïve kid to future mob boss by the end of the movie.

Shocking bursts of violence are another key factor. Part of the Sopranos appeal has always been the air of danger it creates. The Many Saints of Newark keeps that tradition alive. That makes it a fitting prequel to the show. Despite an unfocused overall story, a number of the individual plot threads resolve themselves in a satisfying way. The film may be less than the sum of its parts, yet the best of those parts are worth seeing for viewers who made the HBO series a legendary hit.

out of four

The Many Saints of Newark is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content, and some nudity. The running time is 2 hours.