The Plot: New Jersey, the late 1960s. In the Italian mafia, you keep your friends and family close but your enemies closer. Dickie (Alessandro Nivola) is always on the lookout for the next enemy, particularly at a time of strife during the Civil Rights movement. His father Aldo (Ray Liotta) has brought home a new bride from Italy in the shapely form of Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) – catching the eye of Dickie. He remains close to his nephew Tony (Michael Gandolfini), who idolises and looks up to him. Dickie appears to have a code of honour, but he ain’t no saint…
The Verdict: The Sopranos ran for 86 episodes from 1999 – 2007 and its reputation has lived on. It made a name for HBO and ushered in a new golden age of television which was more morally complex and compulsive viewing. Now creator and showrunner David Chase has returned to the plentiful well of The Sopranos and transferred it to the big screen for a sort-of origin story, tracing the early days of future mob boss Tony Soprano – previously played with such relish by the late James Gandolfini. Sort-of being the operative word here, as The Many Saints Of Newark is less about the early days of Tony and more about the swirling bad influences around him. A kid isn’t born bad. Society and the influences around him turn him into something darker and with murderous potential.
Chase’s script with Lawrence Konner posits Tony initially as an impressionable kid going the wrong way in school and falling into petty crime, as if emulating the less-than-savoury behaviour of his own imprisoned father. Dickie is more of a father to Tony though, seemingly calm and approachable but secretly prone to sudden acts of extreme violence. The second half of the film picks up a few years later when Tony is now a teenager and heading into a life of crime. However, Chase seems less interested in Tony than the film would initially have you believe. The focus is quite firmly on Dickie and his relationship with his father (well played in two very different shades by Ray Liotta) and lusting after his father’s wife, letting the adults do most of the talking – and later, shooting. While the two-faced Dickie (a suave Alessandro Nivola) is undoubtedly an important figure in Tony’s life, that shift of focus is somewhat disconcerting.
Chase is not pursuing a conventional origin story here – Tony isn’t exactly a superhero after all. It’s not The Sopranos: The Junior Years. Once you put that focus point to one side though, the film becomes an entertaining portrait of barefaced and daring crime in a close-knit Italian community. There’s a subtle layer of violence just under the surface, waiting to erupt amidst the pasta dinners and open infidelity. There’s also a wider story involving potential conflict with the African-American community, though Chase doesn’t quite develop this enough to be fully convincing as a subplot (a sequence during the end credits is somewhat throwaway). Young Michael Gandolfini does well though with his relatively small part, echoing his father’s bullishness and bluntness. If Chase is saying that young Tony becomes a product of his society through the bad influences around him rather than through his own morally dubious actions, then that’s a palatable alternative to drive home to an audience.
The Many Saints Of Newark is therefore a film of two halves, in both its structure and its approach towards telling how Tony got from A to B and beyond. That may satisfy some viewers with its depiction of mafia life in the late 1960s – early 1970s and disappoint others, perhaps expecting something a bit more direct and impactful. There are no saints here, just flawed characters in various shades – some nearly jet black. As a connect-the-dots exercise to the TV series, it still works though. Making it a feature film rather than a HBO special is a wiseguy move, given the long history of gangsters in films. Chase has a keen sense of cinematic flair working with his broader canvas. Whether there’s more to tell in this story remains to be seen, if Chase wants to dip back into this well again. It’s all rather bada bing to him after all.
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: No saints here
Directed by Alan Taylor.
Starring Alessandro Nivola, Vera Farmiga, Michael Gandolfini, Michela DeRossi, Jon Bernthal, Ray Liotta.