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The Many Saints of Newark – Review

Rating – ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A strange feeling of anxious anticipation and dread hung over me as I took my seat to finally see The Many Saints of Newark, the long-awaited cinematic prequel to The Sopranos. I just couldn’t bear the thought of a Godfather Part Three-style let down, wherein an ingeniously created universe is tragically stained by a particularly poor entry into the saga. I wrote a lengthy cult column about David Chase’s genre-defining masterpiece of episodic television in this paper just over a year ago, repeatedly asserting throughout that its six seasons formed some of the greatest media to ever reach the small screen, both in the crime genre and beyond. Upon hearing that Chase was not originally on board with a rerun and viewing strangely lacklustre promotional material that appeared tacky at best, passionate fans like me feared the worst for Many Saints.

Well, we can breathe a sigh of relief. This isn’t a masterpiece, it may even be an unnecessary and perhaps forgettable addition to the Tony Soprano tale, yet it isn’t a cheap, cash-grabbing attempt at fan service that spits on the reputation of the original show either. 

Firstly, it doesn’t just feel like a two-hour long episode from the early 2000s has suddenly resurfaced like a previously whacked mobster whose cement shoes weren’t on tight enough, but a film. Complete with some well-directed action scenes and a predictably brilliant soundtrack, Many Saints is exciting and broadly well executed. For any fan of the series, it’s certainly worth a watch.

Solid casting and performances help ensure this is the case, with many of the younger visions of the iconic original characters delivering performances that are calculated and passionately executed. Clearly, every cast member has dutifully studied their previous iterations, with Vera Farmiga’s portrayal of Livia Soprano managing to perfectly encapsulate the vengeful and poisonous matriarch that is Tony Soprano’s mother. Each scene with her in it can be counted as a valuable contribution to the universe, creating a window into the backstory of television’s greatest ever anti-hero. Though Michael Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano understandably doesn’t reach the intergalactic heights that his late father’s monumental performance did, no actor in history could have been a better Tony than his father, and he doesn’t do the part a massive disservice whilst also conveniently looking exactly like him. I must admit that John Magaro’s portrayal of fan-favourite Silvio Dante is severely lacking though. He doesn’t have the gravitas and presence to pull off the unique demeanour of the slippery wisest-of-wise guys, and at certain moments it felt like I was watching my dad’s impression of the mobster rather than an authentic young Sil. That isn’t a good thing.

Many Saints takes some risks, and they largely pay off. The decision to focus on the issue of race is welcome. The Sopranos wasn’t a racist show but, in this way, a slightly dated one, with its portrayal of rival African American mobsters inevitably inhibited by the fact that the series was solely from the perspective of a bigoted mobster, thus Chase wasn’t able to adequately flesh out black characters. He remedies this in Many Saints, and it’s a welcome and bold departure from the original formula.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that above all else, this just all feels… unnecessary. Attempting to revisit the universe in a two-hour trip means that much of the magic of the originals is lost. The Sopranos delicately built an emotionally exhausting, unpredictable, and gripping web of plot lines that trapped their audience and refused to let them go. This is a process that took six unmissable seasons, not just a two-hour prequel. 

I don’t think in a few decades time, when you sit and reflect on the world of Tony Soprano and his battle for supremacy of New Jersey and control of his own sanity, you will be quick to bring up Many Saints. It is a solid film and earns the stars for that, but with a somewhat clumsy narrative that won’t make you feel with the unmistakable intensity of the original series, it is forgettable.

Regrettably, I think Chase should have trusted his original judgement. Like the countless cement cladded bodies that litter the depths of the New Jersey shoreline in the dark and haunting universe of The Sopranos, the saga should have stayed dead. Nothing was ever going to come close to matching it, and even a solid attempt to do so was always going to fall short and thus be devoid of any real meaning.

Image: Dan Lacey via Flickr