“Who made Tony Soprano?” screams the poster for The Many Saints Of Newark, David Chase’s slick flashback to the fabled, formative salad days of his most famous character. Dr. Melfi had theories on the matter; they came up often during her heated sessions with the don. Janice, older sister of New Jersey’s most stressed-out mob boss, posed the question differently: “What’s wrong with our family?” she asked Tony in “The Knight In White Satin Armor,” one of the great episodes of the great HBO series that bore their name. With Saints, the creator finally attempts something of an answer. Unfortunately, what he comes up with in this over-plotted Sopranos prequel is much less interesting than what he planted in our heads over six seasons.
Those jonesing for a Corleonesque rise to power will be disappointed to learn that Tony plays a rather minor role in The Many Saints Of Newark. In fact, for a solid hour, he’s basically Jake Lloyd-sized: a boy (William Ludwig) watching from the sidelines of a criminal empire in late 1960s Jersey. In so much as this rather decentered epic has a central figure, it’s Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s mobster uncle and father of perennial Sopranos fuck-up Christopher. The movie brings us into its past-tense world—the legendary yesterday only alluded to on the show—through what proves to be both its first and its most eccentric choice: Michael Imperioli reprises the role of Christopher to narrate the story from beyond the grave.
Like the adult Tony, Dickie has personal and professional concerns, problems with the family and The Family. For a while, the former involve his own father, played by Ray Liotta, adding another Goodfellas luminary to the Sopranos ensemble. (Liotta, in an impressive dual role, also steps in to play Dickie’s incarcerated uncle, the closest the film ends up having to a voice of moral reason.) The loutish Dickie senior has recently brought home from Italy a young beauty, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), who Dickie junior can’t keep his eyes off of. While that conflict simmers, the first sparks of a gang war are lit by Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), one-time muscle of Dickie’s, who decides maybe the Italians shouldn’t have full control of the city. Harold is radicalized by the Newark riots of 1967—one of the more interesting subplots, along with the exploration of Black organized crime during the era, muscled to the margins of this arrhythmic, diffusive mess of narrative.
Chase, who co-wrote the script with an alum of his writers’ room, Lawrence Konner, flattens the world of The Sopranos into a generic, vaguely Scorsesian crime epic. At times, the film suggests the shapelessness of a biopic, as though it were beholden to some historical record of facts and figures. Not helping matters is the presence of Alan Taylor, another Sopranos veteran, in the director’s chair. Taylor, who’s alternated high-profile HBO gigs with the big-budget franchise maintenance of Thor: The Dark World and Terminator Genisys, gives the film’s period setting a handsome museum sheen, while staging the shoot-outs and tense encounters with anonymous proficiency. He also smothers just about every scene in jukebox wallpaper; you couldn’t exactly call this a soundtrack of needle drops, as the needle never seems to leave the vinyl. One might complain that Taylor’s direction smooths out the idiosyncrasies of this fictional universe, but that counterproductive work begins on the page, with the curiously workmanlike screenplay.
Where’s the prickly psychology, the gaspingly funny midnight-black humor, the dimension Chase brought to every corner of a corrosively amoral criminal empire? Two decades ago, The Sopranos proved you could create something truly novelistic on the small screen, helping usher in a supposed golden age of TV by using the freedoms of the format to tell sprawling stories—and develop characters—in a manner not possible on the big screen. It was among the first shows to have armchair pundits wondering if premium cable was the new home of the serious, adult American drama Hollywood had abandoned. The irony of The Many Saints Of Newark is that it seems to make that case all over again: While The Sopranos demonstrated that the tropes of gangster cinema could be reinvigorated through serialized storytelling, filtering them back into a two-hour format leaves only… the tropes.
It might be easier to accept the film on its own terms if its entire emotional appeal, and its dramatic arc, weren’t predicated on a familiarity with the series. The Many Saints Of Newark has a bad case of prequelitis, filling in backstory perhaps better left implied. The cast of characters is a Muppet Babies parade of Sopranos regulars, some more elegantly de-aged than others: While Corey Stoll offers a nicely organic read on the fledgling testiness and insecurity of Uncle Junior, the normally reliable John Magaro—who made his breakthrough in Chase’s first feature, the similarly years-spanning Not Fade Away—does a sketch-comedy caricature of a young Silvio, broadly approximating Steven Van Zandt’s Al-Pacino-by-way-of-Bela-Lugosi mannerisms. And then there’s Vera Farmiga as Tony’s mother, Livia. In an amusingly Oedipal touch, she looks and sounds just like Edie Falco. Yet Saints borders on revisionist in the way it fails to match any understanding of the domineering shadow she supposedly cast over Tony’s childhood. The Sopranos spent multiple years suggesting a Freudian foundation of family dysfunction. You look at Farmiga’s Livia and see little of the conniving manipulation of Nancy Marchand’s iconic villain.
What the film critically lacks is a black hole of caustic, complex personality to match the one the late James Gandolfini lent The Sopranos. Dickie, this looming figure in Tony’s life, is a paper napkin sketch, defined almost solely by a cycle of explosive anger and the clumsy, guilt-stricken attempts at atonement that follow. Early into the movie, Dickie commits an act of shocking violence in a car—a scene that echoes outward in disturbingly telling ways to a later, significant choice Tony makes in The Sopranos. What we’re meant to see here, perhaps, is the template for a pathology: the raw materials of the man Tony will become, inherited from a relative passing his own flaws—the violence in his heart—down through the generations. Yet Nivola can’t find a character in that abstract notion; he somehow seems less specific than whatever image a fan might have conjured through the anecdotes of the series.
Eventually, Saints spills into the late ’70s, and the role of fresh-faced Tony passes to Gandolfini’s real-life son, Michael. He’s the spitting image of his father—you can see, physically, how he could grow into one of television’s (and 21st-century fiction’s) most memorable antiheroes. Yet there are few traces of the adult Tony in this rather blank-slate teenager: He’s just a feckless kid destined for notoriety. Overburdened with supporting characters and side stories, Chase neglects to properly dramatize the mentor-disciple bond that supposedly sets the boy on his course; you look at his scant scenes with Dickie, and think, this is it? This is the relationship that made Tony Soprano? The Many Saints Of Newark ends at the exact moment that it’s getting interesting; by its inconclusive conclusion, you realize that Chase and his HBO financiers are reaching for a new form of serialization, teasing a transformation that only an inevitable sequel can provide. Let’s just say that as abrupt non-endings go, it has nothing on the hard cut to black that once closed this franchise.