‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Divides Critics: Captures That ‘Sopranos’ Magic But Overstuffed With Callbacks

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Critics in their first look at “The Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark” are celebrating the film’s style and deconstruction of the gangster drama, with some saying it captures the old magic of “The Sopranos” even as it’s perhaps overstuffed with callbacks, references and characters to the series.

“When it’s focusing on the brutality and ugliness of its world, ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ is something remarkable,” Chris Evangelista writes for /Film. “The script, by ‘Sopranos’ creator David Chase and Lawrence Konner, often gets way too cute with its winking references to the show. It’s as if someone, somewhere, suggested that this film follow the lead of modern popular blockbuster entertainment and overload itself with easter eggs.”

“Many Saints” follows the story of Dickie Moltisanti, the father of the series regular Christopher Moltisanti who was a huge influence on a young Tony Soprano, played here by the late James Gandolfini’s son Michael Gandolfini, and critics like Uproxx’s Mike Ryan hailed the young Gandolfini’s performance for capturing the mannerisms of his father.

Michael Imperioli as Christopher even narrates the film technically from beyond the grave, as the film shows in an opening sequence. But critics also caution that the film is very much the story of Dickie, with Tony not even showing up until halfway through the film. And they were more split as to whether Nivola’s character does the story justice.

“With a winning smile that can veer into a frightening grimace in an instant, Nivola captures Dickie’s swagger and charm, his volatility and kindness. What he can’t do, unfortunately, is make Dickie more than a generic wiseguy—a situation compounded by the fact that the circumstances he finds himself in are surprisingly routine,” The Daily Beast’s Nick Schager writes.

“The Many Saints of Newark” opens in theaters and on HBO Max Oct. 1. See some more reactions from critics below:

TheWrap: The problem with the modern lust for origin stories is that audiences supposedly want everything explained to them, but just look online — you will see ecstatic comment threads questioning and dissecting every complex moment and line reading in practically every scene of “The Sopranos.” The art that lasts is the art that stimulates people to ask questions. That’s why “The Sopranos” is still alive and still troubling and still a major accomplishment, and this prequel just proves it needs nothing further added to it.

Uproxx: “The Sopranos” was a show that never wrapped anything up into a tidy bow. (People are still asking what happened to the two Russians from the “Pine Barrens” episode.) And that’s why I keep thinking about this movie. I like that everything doesn’t get wrapped up at the end. I like wondering what happened with certain plot threads. But like some of the best episodes of the series, I needed a little bit of time to realize that.

The Daily Beast: The film plays as an addendum marked by respectable performances that pay tribute to familiar characters, some half-baked racial-strife undercurrents, and a comfortable sense of its 1960s-into-early-1970s New Jersey milieu. It’s been designed for those desperate to revisit the gangland that Chase so memorably evoked in his cable-TV behemoth. Yet there’s magic missing from this encore effort, in large part because it never provides a pressing justification for its own existence.

The AV Club: 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.

EW: In more than a few moments — a walk on a winter beach, a warning bullet shot through the top of a startled bouffant — that feels like actual magic, recreated. (Who else could conjure the exquisite vanity of a dapper young hoodlum patiently lacquering his fingernails in clear gloss at the dinner table?). At other times it just feels like a tease: ten tons of backstory squeezed into a two-hour runtime.

/Film: If “The Sopranos” was a post-modern take on the goodfellas of the 21st century, “The Many Saints of Newark” strives to take this approach even further, going back to “the good old days” of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The gangsters here are a bit cooler — they’re wearing well-tailored suits and cufflinks, unlike their dressed-down 21st-century counterparts. But they’re just as dumb, just as brutal, just as heartless. There’s nothing glamorous about this world. It’s a cold, cruel, godless universe where funerals are abundant and no one has anything close to hope.

Indiewire: Directed with unfussy confidence by “Sopranos” veteran Alan Taylor, it wants to give people more of a show they love because of how forcefully it argues that more is never enough. The result, almost by design, is equal parts gratuitous fan service and gripping mob drama; a clumsy devil’s handshake of a film that’s asphyxiated to death by the same mythology it also leverages into a masterful origin story about cyclical violence and the sins of the father. The power of a prequel is that it can make everything we’ve already seen feel like predestination, but “The Many Saints of Newark” so insistently renders the past as prologue that it sometimes forgets the past has to be present first.

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