‘The Many Saints of Newark’ is a disappointing return to the world of ‘The Sopranos’

Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano, Vera Farmiga as Livia Soprano, Jon Bernthal as Johnny Soprano, Michael Gandolfini as Teenage Tony Soprano, Gabriella Piazza as Joanne Moltisanti and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti in “The Many Saints of Newark,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Michael Gandolfini, and Alessandro Nivola in ‘The Many Saints of Newark.’ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
  • “Sopranos” prequel movie “The Many Saints of Newark” premieres Friday in theaters and on HBO Max.
  • Fans will enjoy revisiting familiar characters, but not enough attention is paid to Tony Soprano.
  • Watching Michael Gandolfini play his father’s most famous role, however, is a special experience.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Premiering this Friday in theaters (and simultaneously on HBO Max), “The Many Saints of Newark” is a “Sopranos” prequel film set in 1960s and ’70s New Jersey.

But while the film boasts a star-studded cast (including Vera Farmiga as Livia, Corey Stoll as Uncle Junior, and Michael Gandolfini playing the role of a young Tony Soprano) and the involvement of several “Sopranos” writers and directors, it can’t quite figure out what it wants to be.

Posters and trailers for “Many Saints” seem to depict it as a Tony Soprano origin story, and in some ways, it is – young Tony’s early life and relationships form the backbone of the film. But much of the plot follows Tony’s “uncle,” Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) – father of “Sopranos” character Christopher (Michael Imperioli), who narrates the film from beyond the grave.

There are echoes of adult Tony in the Dickie we meet in the prequel: Like Tony did on the critically acclaimed HBO drama, Dickie struggles to find meaning in his existence, and frequently alienates those around him. But Dickie’s journey in “Many Saints” isn’t nearly as compelling as Tony’s, and the film is further muddled by callbacks to the show that are often more distracting than satisfying.

The film does its best to answer questions about Tony’s early life, as marketing seemed to promise it would. More often than not, however, “Many Saints” feels more like fan service than a fully-fleshed out coming-of-age tale.

Billy Magnussen, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, John Magaro, Ray Liotta, and Alessandro Nivola in 'The Many Saints of Newark.'
Billy Magnussen, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, John Magaro, Ray Liotta, and Alessandro Nivola in ‘The Many Saints of Newark.’ Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema

Callbacks to the hit HBO drama and younger versions of popular characters dominate the film

“The Many Saints of Newark” is packed with references to the original drama, including Tony’s father (Jon Bernthal) shooting Livia’s beehive hairdo during a car ride (an incident which was recalled on the show by an adult Janice), and Livia shouting “Poor you!” to Tony during an argument (a line the elderly Livia often repeated to Tony on “The Sopranos“). Uncle Junior’s infamous penchant for cursing is also shown in the film.

Fans will no doubt appreciate the dozens of in-jokes, but fun as they are, the references frequently distract from the actual story at hand.

And while it’s certainly entertaining to see Billy Magnussen and John Magaro embody much-younger versions of fan favorites Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri and Silvio Dante, respectively, they feel more like impersonations than fully developed characters most of the time.

Michael Gandolfini, Jon Bernthal, and Alexandra Intrator in 'The Many Saints of Newark.'
Michael Gandolfini, Jon Bernthal, and Alexandra Intrator in ‘The Many Saints of Newark.’ Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema

Also overshadowing the narrative – which is ostensibly Tony Soprano’s coming-of-age story – is the focus on Dickie, a character who was often mentioned on “The Sopranos,” especially by Christopher.

But this is the first time viewers get to really meet the infamous Dickie. And while Dickie’s moral struggles, as well as his complex relationships with his father, uncle, and mistress are definitely intriguing, Tony’s experiences in the movie as a young adult pale in comparison.

David Chase (who created “The Sopranos” and cowrote the prequel with Lawrence Konner) clearly wants to show the deep bond between Dickie and Tony. And while their relationship undoubtedly influences the adult Tony, Tony’s childhood and adolescence still doesn’t seem fully explored.

Leslie Odom Jr. and Germar Terrell Gardner in 'The Many Saints of Newark.'
Leslie Odom Jr. and Germar Terrell Gardner in ‘The Many Saints of Newark.’ Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema

The film’s inclusion of the 1967 Newark race riots – as well as its explorations of racial tensions between Black Americans and Italian-Americans – seem superficial

A key moment in “The Many Saints of Newark” is when Dickie, Silvio, Paulie, and the rest of the crew witness the 1967 riots that dominated Newark in mid-July of that year. After fleeing the violence on the street, Dickie joins the others in watching the flames from a nearby restaurant.

His increasingly-strained relationship with Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a former low-level employee of the DiMeo family, is also explored throughout the film.

But both the riots and the struggles of Harold and his own crew to gain a foothold in Newark and start a criminal venture of their own aren’t ever fully explored.

And aside from a scene where Harold goes to an open-mic poetry night and sees Black artists speaking about Black liberation, “Many Saints” doesn’t dive deeper into the experiences of Newark’s Black community.

Instead, both the film’s Black characters and the racial tension in Newark at the time seem more like ways to advance the plot.

Of course, the film is about Tony and his relationship with Dickie, but it was disappointing to see horrific instances of racism deployed as plot points, and the lived experiences of Black Americans treated almost as an afterthought.

Michael Gandolfini and Alessandro Nivola in 'The Many Saints of Newark.'
Michael Gandolfini and Alessandro Nivola in ‘The Many Saints of Newark.’ Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures

Ultimately, ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ lacks the nuance of the original show

At times, the film bites off more than it can chew, and seems more dedicated to fan service-y moments than deepening the backstory of Tony Soprano.

It’s a treat to see iconic characters brought to life on the big screen once again, however, and watching Gandolfini skillfully embody his father James’ most iconic character is a truly special experience.

Overall, “Many Saints of Newark” is an entertaining addition to “Sopranos” lore – but if you’re looking for something more nuanced and evocative, you should probably just rewatch the show.

“The Many Saints of Newark” premieres Friday in theaters and on HBO Max. You can watch the trailer below.