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Review: 'The Many Saints of Newark' lives up to the hype

Film Review - The Many Saints of Newark
Posted at 8:55 AM, Oct 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-01 08:55:22-04

Tom Santilli is a respected journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association, Detroit Film Critics Society and Online Film Critics Society since 2010. Tom is the Executive Producer and co-host of the syndicated TV show, "Movie Show Plus," which has been on the air for 20+ years in the Metro-Detroit market and Mid-West. He is also the film critic for WXYZ-TV. Twitter: @tomsantilli, Facebook & Instagram: @filmsurvivor.

To quote Silvio Dante quoting Michael Corleone: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back IN!!"

That's what it feels like to submerge back into the world of "The Sopranos," the ground-breaking HBO drama that is considered one of the best TV shows of all-time and certainly one of the most influential of its era. For me, it was the last "must see" TV show, something that would later be categorized as "appointment TV." I would watch nervously and breathlessly each week, hoping that my favorite characters would survive the hour. They often would, but many times wouldn't.

With "The Sopranos" prequel film, "The Many Saints of Newark," you are pulled back in to this modern world of gangsters, their families and their issues that exist both externally and internally. You'll be reminded that David Chase, the creator of "The Sopranos" and who co-wrote "The Many Saints of Newark," is an absolute force of nature...a writer unparalleled and like the show he created, in a league of his own. He makes "Many Saints" not only fit into the world that he created over 20 years ago, but adds to it.

"Many Saints," I'd argue, is going to become required-viewing for those wanting to experience the full tragic saga of Tony Soprano. It lives up to the hype, and for any fan of "The Sopranos," it will meet and surpass your already astronomical expectations.

It's not just a worthy Sopranos story, it's one of my favorite films of the year.

Grade: A-

The title, "The Many Saints of Newark," makes a bit more sense when translated. "Many Saints" in Italian is "Moltisanti," and if you are familiar with The Sopranos at all, you'll recognize this surname. In the TV show (which ran for 86 episodes from 1999 to 2007), Michael Imperioli played Christopher Moltisanti, the loyal nephew to family patriarch Tony Soprano. Though his father, Dickie Moltisanti, never appeared in the series, he was mentioned occasionally and even was the focus of one particular episode (Season 4, Episode 1, which is a great episode to catch ahead of viewing the new film).

As the title implies, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) is the central character in "The Many Saints of Newark," which takes place in New Jersey some 30 years before the events of the TV show. The backdrop is the famous Newark race riots of 1967, an event that David Chase knows all too well since he grew up during them. The movie provides important context and background for the characters that will eventually populate the TV series, but it also can be viewed as a stand-alone movie about family, duality and the many shades of criminal uprising that sprouted out of the civil unrest.

To be completely honest, while this film might still be enjoyable to those who have never seen The Sopranos (who are these people and where have they been for the last 25 years???), it is purely an experience meant for its fans. Watching "Many Saints" is like going on an adult Easter Egg hunt, as the movie will likely require several re-watches in order to catch all of the references and similarities to the TV show.

All of the major (and many of the minor) characters from "The Sopranos" are present, and the casting alone should win several awards for how incredibly authentic the actors portray these beloved TV characters. Corey Stall is a tremendous young Junior Soprano. Paulie and Big Pussy (Billy Magnussen and Samson Moeakiola, respectively) are in the mix. John Magaro gives an amazing over-the-top performance as eventual consligiere, Silvio Dante, which works only because original actor "Little" Stevie Van Zandt's own performance as the character was so over-the-top. You'll also catch a young Janice (Alexandra Intrator), Artie Bucco, Jackie Aprile and several others in blink-and-you'll-miss them rapidity. The characters aren't the only Easter Eggs either, as several important locations are represented as well.

And while this isn't exactly a movie directly about Tony Soprano, it isn't accurate to say that the movie is not about him. James Gandolfini, who died abruptly of a heart-attack in 2013, won three Best Actor Emmys (and was nominated six times) for the role of Tony Soprano. In the film, a young adult Tony is played by none other than his real-life son, Michael Gandolfini. Michael's physical appearance is strikingly similar to that of his fathers, but wait until you see him act as Tony. What an incredible tribute that jumps out of the screen in a meta sort of way.

Playing an important role in the film are also Tony's parents. Who can forget the legendary performance by Nancy Marchand as Livia Soprano in the show's first season. Vera Farmiga impeccably captures the spirit of Livia with a remarkable portrayal as the emotionally abusive mother. We only knew of "Johnny Boy" Soprano, Tony's father, from some flashbacks during the series, but here he is played with fire in his eyes by Jon Bernthal. And Dickie is not the only new blood: "Many Saints" also features career-best work from Ray Liotta in dual roles, and "Hamilton" vet Leslie Odom Jr. as an up-and-coming entrepreneur who realizes early on that he can flourish outside of the established Newark criminal hierarchy.

This is at the end of the day a David Chase story. So you can expect intellectual examinations of how our humanity is influenced by our surroundings, themes involving the parent-child relationship and exploration of much more than just guns and violence. He still has a way to make you laugh with hysterical bits of dialogue, and there is never a wasted scene or interaction among characters. Even with Tony, the duality of this mob boss who suffers panic-attacks seemed to be an attempt to only paint in grey...nobody is just "one thing" and people in reality are much more complicated than this.

The Ray Liotta characters drives the hammer on the nail of this idea, and there are important concepts about not just legacy, but about our own emotional recall. As Billy Joel once said, "The good ole days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems." When you juxtapose how characters from the series looked back on these early times with what we now see to have happened, it's amazing what characters choose to remember, or choose to forget. Chase somehow has emphasized and deepened some of the choices that characters make later in their lives. So don't believe anybody that tells you that this film is just Chase playing with old toys...he has a lot to say here, and in many ways what he says here only goes to inform the characters that we all thought we knew and remembered so well.

To watch Tony Soprano as a young man, we witness the environment that led to Tony Soprano the middle-aged man. In classic Chase style though, just as we begin to sympathize with this young man who had so much promise, we also learn about one more devastating evil that Tony manufactures later in life...that upon re-watching the series, we learn is way more manipulative than maybe anything Tony has ever done. Junior too, is spun in a way that should not surprise anyone who watched the TV show...No spoilers here.

There are a few minor failings with "Many Saints." First, while Dickie Moltisanti is an interesting character, he seems to exist mainly as a window into Tony Soprano's world, which doesn't leave him much room for depth or growth. The character and b-plot storyline involving Leslie Odom Jr. is intriguing, but it might have been more effective if it felt somehow tied in to the bigger picture...instead, it just is left hanging out there and feels like a massive oversight.

Lastly, this is a film that Chase intended for the big-screen and the big-screen ONLY...in a recent interview, Chase said he would have never written the film if he would have known that it could be seen same-day on HBO Max. So if you do consider yourself a fan of The Sopranos, and/or of David Chase, do yourself a favor and - if you feel comfortable to do so - see this at your local movie theater.

"The Many Saints of Newark" feels like a reunion among good, old friends, and it ends too abruptly leaving us wanting more and more. Despite a few short-comings and the fact that it might not play well with those not familiar with The Sopranos, I haven't experienced another movie this year that I didn't want to end, where I was thoroughly enjoying the immersion of being in such great company...especially that of David Chase's words.

As a prequel, "The Many Saints of Newark" fits well with The Sopranos pilot episode, in which Tony Soprano says, "Lately I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over." Tony Soprano's selective memory is sort of the point: We remember what we choose to remember, and we forget what we sometimes choose to forget. Like Tony, Dickie Moltisanti is no saint, even if the passing of time has built him up as a legend worth remembering. But at the end of the day there are no saints, no legends, just strangers waitin', up and down the boulevard, their shadows searchin' in the night...people livin' just to find emotion hidin' somewhere in the night.

Grade: A-

Genre: Crime, Drama.
Run Time: 2 hours.
Rated R.

Starring: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Michael Gandolfini, Corey Stoll, Vera Farmiga, Billy Magnussen, Ray Liotta, Samson Moeakiola, Gabriella Piazza, Michela De Rossi, Mattea Conforti, John Magaro.

Written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner.

Directed by Alan Taylor ("Terminator Genisys," "Thor: The Dark World").

"The Many Saints of Newark" is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Friday, October 1st, 2021.