Everyone starts somewhere. Even crime lords.
Tony Soprano wasn’t always the conflicted, ruthless, tortured mafia boss chronicled in HBO’s landmark television series The Sopranos. He was a kid once—an aspiring football player with dreams of college in the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s. Sure he gets into trouble sometimes. But maybe even a kid born into one of New Jersey’s most prominent crime families can come clean.
Richard Motlisanti would like to think so. Tony knows him as “Uncle Dickie,” a smooth, dapper player in Newark’s crime game. He’s not a boss. But he has power. He knows what hands to grease and what thumbs to break, and if the work gets a little messy? That’s fine with him. The Family has given him most everything he has, from money to authority to, yeah, even a little love.
But Dickie looks at Tony and feels responsible for the kid—to show him what it means to be a man. A good man. Tony doesn’t listen to most folks—not his high-strung mother, not his critical dad, not his overwhelmed teachers. But Dickie? He can get through to the boy. And maybe, he just might help young Tony get out—out of the family business. Out to college. He’s probably not college football material, but who knows? Maybe Tony can make them all proud.
Then again, let’s get real. Tony’s a long way down Dickie’s list of priorities.
There’s the family business, for one thing. That’s a job that never quits. Racial unrest is rising in Newark, too, and that’s bad for the bottom line. Some of Dickie’s associates from the other side of the tracks—ambitious Harold McBrayer, for one—might decide to start their own syndicates, and the Family can’t have that.
And then Dickie’s got to contend with the return of his own problematic pops, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Motlisanti. Back from Italy, he’s brought home a new wife, Guiseppina. She doesn’t know much English, but she is a former beauty queen, so most everyone can see the attraction. Dickie feels it himself. And knowing how his pops treated Dickie’s own mother—and their kids, for that matter—he worries about the new bride. She deserves better.
Everyone starts somewhere, it’s true. But everyone’s gotta end somewhere, too. And more than a few people will meet their ends in Newark.
After committing a pretty terrible deed, Dickie visits the prison where his uncle Sal—twin brother to Hollywood Dick—has been serving a murder sentence. “I want to do a good deed,” Dickie tells Sal. He doesn’t say why, though—that he feels the need to wash the blood off his hands.
The deed Sal gives him is simple enough: Bring him a record from one of his favorite jazz artists. He does so, but Dickie does some other decent things, too. He coaches a blind baseball team. One day, he tries to protect Guiseppina from his dad while resisting the woman’s own provocative overtures. (All of this goes bad quickly, but Dickie’s motives were in the right place.)
And Dickie does understand, on some level, that he’s a role model to young Tony. He encourages the lad to stop getting in trouble at school (because his mother has enough to worry about). He encourages Tony to think about college. And when the boy notices him doing some thing bad, Dickie has the grace to be embarrassed about it—knowing that he should do better.
Admittedly, that’s faint praise: When Dickie’s caught doing something terrible, he feels bad. But that’s what The Many Saints of Newark gives us: pretty awful people who occasionally do some not-so-awful things.
We all know what Tony later becomes, but he shows some love and protective instincts toward his mother. Mom Livia makes some attempts to strengthen her maternal bonds with her boy. Guiseppina shows some significant backbone in this male-dominated world. But few of these go much further than being small, bright sparks in this land of shadow.
The Moltisanis and Sopranos are Catholic, and the religion plays an important part in their lives (despite how badly and frequently they break the Ten Commandments). You could make a strong case that Dickie’s desire to do a “good deed” was a very Catholic impulse—to do penance for a sin. He and Sal talk about God at one point, with Sal wryly suggesting, “Maybe some of the things you do aren’t God’s favorite.”
We see funerals in Catholic churches, and a girl is the guest of honor at a religious confirmation party. (Someone says that the girl’s confirmation saint, Apollonia, is the patron saint of dentists.) Crosses adorn both houses and (in the form of necklaces) people. One corpse clutches a rosary in a coffin.
A priest is subjected to a gale of horrific conversation from some mob members; he listens politely but clearly doesn’t enjoy the experience. Sometimes those around him apologize for their language or their descriptions of certain acts or people. Guiseppina admits that while growing up, she wanted to become a priest (not a nun), because “the priest is the boss.” Tony and his schoolmates go to a private Catholic school named after St. Agatha. Other people are referred to as “saints,” and a prominent African-American gang calls itself the Saints, as well.
When Tony tries to hold Dickie’s baby, Christopher, the boy starts squalling. An older woman says, “Some babies, when they come into the world, know all sorts of things from the other side.” (It’s a bit of foreshadowing; In The Sopranos, Tony murders the adult Christopher.)
Tony describes the book Ivanhoe to Dickie, telling him about one of the Jewish characters in it. “I didn’t know they had Jews in the Middle Ages,” Dickie says. “Well, the Bible—” Tony begins before Dickie cuts him off. When one man reads the Bible, his wife asks him if he got it from a motel. (He says he doesn’t remember.)
The movie begins in a graveyard filled with familiar, dead characters from The Sopranos. The dead people speak as the camera pans over their gravestones. There’s a reference to the Nation of Islam.
A man and a woman have sex. While talking afterward for several minutes, her breasts are fully exposed.
It’s certainly not the only sexual act we see or hear, and many (including the act above) take place outside the boundaries of marriage. Dickie has onscreen sex with his own paramour in what appears to be a public hotel bathroom (where we see some of both his and her rear ends). He nearly commits the act in an apartment he’s buying for his lover, too. (We see them make out passionately and start unfastening bits of clothes before the realtor knocks on the door, ending the interlude.)
An injured mob bigwig tries to have sex with his wife (we see her in a black brassiere, he in a back brace), but the act is too painful for the boss to complete. (The wife complains that her husband will use any excuse not to have sex.) Dickie hears another couple make noisy love on the other side of a wall. Other couples discuss sex while in their skivvies.
Women are routinely objectified, sometimes using some pretty crass language. We hear rumors of a boss’s wife having an affair.
Someone says Dickie’s name, stressing the double entendre that’s inescapably a part of his moniker now. The jokester gets slapped in the face.
More than 90 people were killed on screen during The Sopranos’ six-season run. If you count The Many Saints of Newark as an inclusion to that sprawling drama, we must add plenty of others to that ledger.
Dickie and some soldiers torture a man for information—sticking a running lug nut gun into his mouth and letting the makeshift drill tear apart the man’s mouth. (We see it all on screen.) When Dickie’s men are about to give the lug nut gun another go, the victim struggles free—only to be shot several times. (He dies, of course.)
A guy smashes another man’s head repeatedly against a steering wheel, killing him. He disposes of the body by driving it to a building and setting it on fire. One person drowns another in the ocean. We see the dead body float in the waves. Several people are shot to death, with one having part of his head blown off. Windows are spattered with blood and gore. Someone complains about getting blood all over his new shirt.
Hollywood Dick kicks Guiseppina down the stairs during an argument, and she whacks her head on a wall. We learn from Dickie that his dad used to treat Dickie’s mother the same way—and beat the kids, too.
Part of the movie takes place during Newark’s race riots of 1967, in which 23 people died and hundreds more were injured. We see lots of chaos, with parts of the city burning and plenty of people looting and throwing Molotov cocktails. (The movie suggests that Dickie indirectly played a role in sparking the riots; he suffers a small injury to his head when someone hits it with a rock or bottle.)
Tony and his friends beat up an ice cream truck driver and steal his truck. Someone is beaten ferociously with a hubcap. Two police officers assault a Black taxi driver. A man is serving a life sentence for murder. A guy fires a gun right above his wife’s head—much to the wife’s annoyance.
Nearly 70 f-words are used, along with 14 s-words and a couple of uses of the c-word. We also hear “a–,” “d–n,” “p—y,” “n—er” and “p-ss.”
Characters drink wine and beer with dinner. Dickie takes swigs from a flask he keeps handy. People smoke a great many cigarettes.
Conversations and images (a prescription medicine bottle) allude to someone taking a mood-enhancing drug.
Name a biblical commandment, and it’s violated here. Why, most everyone’s livelihood is predicated on breaking the whole “thou shalt not steal” thing. We see Dickie and others in a warehouse filled with stolen merchandise. He gives a pair of stolen speakers to Tony. And when Tony tries to reject them–saying he wants to go to college and doesn’t want to get in trouble—Dickie tells him that he can take the hot merchandise just this once, and just promise himself that he’ll never do it again.
The mob is also heavily into gambling, and we hear a great deal about numbers rackets (that another fledgling gang is trying to horn in on). Tony also starts a gambling enterprise at his private, Catholic school—one that gets him suspended.
Racial tensions and attitudes are big players here as well. When Tony’s dad, John, is released from prison, he notices a Black family has moved into the neighborhood, and he’s furious about it. Blacks are treated with disdain by members of the mob, even when they work together. One Black man, ordered to take care of a problem, is called a “house n—er” by the man’s wife or lover.
The Many Saints of Newark is a little like a prohibition-era speakeasy: Know the password, and you’re in for an evening. Everyone else might as well stay away.
The password, in this case, is Sopranos. The film serves as more than just an origin story for the show’s flawed protagonist, Tony: It’s one giant Easter egg that focuses on Tony’s biggest mentor and drills into one of the show’s ancillary mysteries: Who killed Dickie Moltisanti? Tony always said the culprit was a retired police detective, but was it really?
Fans of the show know what to expect here: The family intrigue, the complex characters, the uncomfortable splashes of humor, the more frequent splashes of blood. The show has always been drenched in sexual dalliances, unprintable language, and loads and loads of murder. Those who loved The Sopranos are certainly not going to be swayed by any pleas of mine to stay far, far away. And those looking for a great family outing or a fun, clean film aren’t likely reading this review. (And if I’m wrong—well, my recommendation would be to, again, stay far, far away.)
But for those looking for an entry point into the much-ballyhooed Sopranos saga, or for folks who dig gangster dramas and haven’t seen a new one since The Irishman, this is still one to walk on past. No need to learn the secret knock here; this door isn’t worth opening.
Gangster films are so popular because they give us a peek at another world—a world filled with blood and broken taboos, of people who embrace their darkest natures before dressing up for Sunday dinner with the fam. But for all their supposed glamour, these stories are messy—as messy as Ma’s spaghetti eaten without silverware.
And what stains the clothes ain’t tomato sauce.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.