'The Many Saints of Newark' Plays up 'Sopranos' Nostalgia But Holds Its Own (Movie Review)

It's been a little more than two decades since we first met The Sopranos and after all this time, the HBO masterpiece that revolutionized serial storytelling and character-driven writing remains one of the absolute best series of our generation. But while our love for the show hasn't changed, it has evolved thanks to streaming broadening viewership and a revival renaissance renewing our interest in both film and TV. Unsurprisingly, The Sopranos is a show cemented in the vernacular of popular culture that has continued to pique audiences' interest, so it makes sense that a prequel starring the iconic lead character gets his own origin story with The Many Saints of Newark.

While the David Chase-created family crime drama changed the television landscape across six seasons from 1999 to 2007, don't expect the prequel film directed by Alan Taylor (Thor, Terminator: Genisys) to be anything like the award-winning series. Carved out in its own dimension across two hours through the eyes of young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini) before turning into the iconic mob boss, The Many Saints of Newark explores the tensions and rivalries of two crime enterprises within the Italian-American and African-American communities between the late 1960s and 1970s. Marketed as "A Sopranos Story," much of The Many Saints of Newark centers around Tony's uncle, Richard "Dickie" Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) — a man only heard about briefly in the series by his nephew, Tony, and son, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli, who surprisingly plays a crucial role in the prequel despite his character's death in the series).

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(Photo: Warner Bros. / New Line Cinema)

With a focus on Dickie and the relationships he builds while working with the Sopranos gang and constructing his mob empire among the familiar characters often seen in the series, including the likes of a younger Junior Soprano (Corey Stoll), Paulie Walnuts (Billie Magnussen) or Silvio Dante (John Magaro), the story's dots are solidly joined by new character Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a small-time numbers runner making his mark in the Sopranos world as the first Black gangster

Thanks to a welcoming and robust structure in writing and story from Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner, The Many Saints of Newark is a film that certainly lives up to its hype to deliver on all chambers a prequel that most certainly will meet and surpass audiences' expectations. Packed with nostalgia from both classic mob movies and Easter eggs from The Sopranos, the performances in The Many Saints of Newark are unmissable, with each actor delivering precisely what is needed of their roles.

Nivola is captivating as Dickie, a character that is both charming and intense. While some scenes are hard to watch him in as he unleashes a monstrous side reminiscent of Christopher in The Sopranos, Nivola nails the complexities of Dickie as so much of his spirit was felt and filled in on the HBO show. Not to mention, Nivola, who has often played supporting characters in movies like American Hustle or The Wizard of Lies, is a terrific actor and very much underrated. His leading alongside the cast elevates the film, especially as seen with his chemistry alongside Michael Gandolfini, playing teenage Tony Soprano. The 22-year-old actor, loyal to the craft just like this father, is incredibly striking in this role with electric energy and charisma that feels reminiscent but holds up to his own. Taking on the task of a character that his father James Gandolfini made world-famous isn't an easy skin to jump into either. But Michael does it with the utmost care as he nails many of his father's mannerisms and diction for a flawless and forceful performance. It's hard not to be mesmerized and engrossed in the portrayal of Michael's young Tony as it's just so effortless and sincere. His on-screen demeanor is magnetic and complements the Tony Soprano persona we came to love on the show.

Odom Jr. can do no wrong and his role in The Many Saints of Newark is another strong performance that will have many clamoring for more of Harold's story, especially in how things look a lot more open-ended for him by the film's conclusion. Always so majestic on-screen with a commanding, masterly presence, Odom Jr. is irresistible to watch as he pulls out absorbing and magnanimous purpose to his character. One of the more powerful scenes with Odom Jr. is evidenced in recreating the 1967 Newark Riots. With Harold watching the injustice wrought against his community unfold before his eyes, Odom Jr. elevates his character's profundity with a visible transformation that is immaculately performed amid a brilliantly juxtaposed and envisioned moment in direction by Taylor featuring Gil-Scott Heron's track "Your Soul and Mine."  

The film is supported by an all-star cast, each bringing a fresh take to their characters, including the likes of Jon Bernthal as Johnny "Boy" Soprano, Vera Farmiga as Livia Soprano, Ray Liotta as Aldo "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti and newcomer Michela De Rossi as Giuseppina Bruno. Farmiga's incredible take on Livia is one to keep your eyes on as audiences get to see the mental health struggles Tony's mother is suffering early on, earning an understanding of her actions on The Sopranos. Additionally, Liotta is perfection in this and proves he is always a force to reckon with in every movie. There is so much to really admire about his performance, especially as fans will see another side of him almost immediately. 

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Undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year, paying a healthy homage and respect to The Sopranos tone, The Many Saints of Newark is a five-star, full-bodied crime drama with premium entertainment that manages to create a blend of new and old for audiences through an ambitious balance between drama, dark comedy, nostalgia and precisely detailed character arcs. Smoothly harmonizing edge with heart for a cohesive story, the film is undeniably entertaining and works magnificently to open doors for plenty more thanks to compelling direction and writing. 

The Many Saints of Newark is in theaters nationwide on Oct. 1, 2021 and will be available in the U.S. on HBO Max via the Ad-Free plan, available in 4K UHD, HDR10, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos (English only) on supported devices for 31 days from the theatrical release. It is being distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures and has been rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity.