By Reed Ripley
The Many Saints of Newark
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Crime/Drama | R | 2 hr
In Theaters, Streaming on HBO Max
Usually, when existing intellectual property is turned into something new, and it doesn’t quite work, people are quick to point to a cash grab or a studio’s desperation. Neither is the culprit here; sometimes things just do not work, at least, in this case, for an uninitiated Sopranos audience.
Many Saints takes place during a roughly five-year stretch in late 60s and early 70s Newark, New Jersey, a time of distinct tumult and change. The story centers on Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a soldier in the prominent DiMeo crime family, and his place within the Soprano crew, a faction of the family run by “Johnny Boy” Soprano (Jon Bernthal). Tagging along for the ride is young Anthony “Tony” Soprano (Michael Gandolfini, portraying his father’s legendary character), who follows his “uncle” Dickie with admiration, even as Moltisanti struggles with increasing conflict and at home and challenges to his position, both internal and external.
For almost as long as cinema has existed, mafia movies have been massively successful, both critically and commercially. Yes, miscellaneous violence has something to do with it, but the real draw is the genre’s proclivity to explore family drama and comment on the American experience. Those themes are certainly present in Many Saints, but the film lacks enough cohesion and clarity among its characters and scenes to have it resonate in a meaningful way.
The story’s foundation is Dickie Moltisanti, but the character never transcends past ‘generic gangster.’ This is not Alessandro Nivola’s fault, as he is actually quite good with what he is given to do. Likewise, Bernthal, Vera Farmiga (as Livia Soprano), and Corey Stoll (as Junior Soprano) give unsurprisingly great performances as characters the film just does not have time or space to fully flesh out. Additionally, there is an entire subplot that focuses on Leslie Odom Jr.’s Harold McBrayer, his pursuit of his own operation outside Dickie and the DiMeo family’s influence, and the race riots in Newark during the time, but the storyline seems like an afterthought, and every time the film returns to it, it feels jarring and mismatched as opposed to additive.
The film is not entirely unsuccessful; the acting and technical aspects of the film are all well done, and the elements are all there for greatness. Ray Liotta in particular does a wonderful job in an interestingly varied role, and Gandolfini’s ability to mimic his late father’s character is shockingly good at times. However, the film tries to jam way too much into its two-hour runtime, and each scene watches like it should be an entry of an eight-episode miniseries.
As a final note, it is important to disclose I have only seen the first six episodes of season one of The Sopranos. Yes, I know how good it is, and yes, I will be watching all 86 episodes at some point. Normally, I would separate this from analysis of the film, but the context is impossible to ignore (Warner Bros. markets the film as a “Sopranos Story,” after all). Many of the faults outlined above are surely remedied for viewers familiar with the show by the background details that come with that knowledge and existing relationship to the story.