Fourteen years after “The Sopranos” ended in much-debated fashion, “The Many Saints of Newark” reopens that universe, wisely going back decades before those events. Yet what sounds like a Tony Soprano origin story really focuses on other characters, in a richly detailed movie filled with enough new material and callbacks to accommodate a limited series, which might have been the more interesting approach.
As is, series creator David Chase — reunited with director Alan Taylor, and sharing script credit with Lawrence Konner — has set up a world where the young Tony, played for a little over half the film by the late James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, is mostly a bystander. The main action, in fact, surrounds his uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), whose son Christopher would eventually become one of the more unfortunate soldiers in the grownup Tony’s ranks.
The charismatic Dickie is everyone’s favorite uncle, but he’s also a very, very bad guy, running a lucrative numbers operation. His life is complicated when his father (Ray Liotta) returns from Italy with a trophy wife (Michela De Rossi), who obviously didn’t fall for him strictly for his charm.
The film opens in 1967, a particularly tumultuous period in which racial strife bleeds into the family’s criminal enterprises. One of Dickie’s operatives, Harold (“Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom Jr.), begins to chafe at the relationship, as police mistreatment of Blacks becomes harder and harder to overlook.
Modern movies seldom leave audiences clamoring for more, but in the case of “Many Saints,” it might have been necessary. For starters, it takes a little while just sorting out the cast of characters and connecting them to their “Sopranos” counterparts, with Vera Farmiga as Tony’s horrid and unhappy mom Livia, young soldiers who would later be part of Tony’s crew and Corey Stoll as Uncle Junior, who doesn’t receive the respect he thinks he deserves, especially with his brother Johnny Boy (Jon Bernthal) temporarily away on a felony rap.
The violence, lest anyone has forgotten, is brutal and disturbing. Flashing forward into the early ’70s, when “Dirty Harry” is recommended viewing, the narrative finds Dickie beset at work and home, Tony struggling with high school and Johnny Boy out of prison, which only adds fuel to the already-combustible family dynamics.
The ability in a series to tease out such storylines leaves “Many Saints” feeling a trifle rushed toward the finish, although it pays off in a particularly appropriate way, one that not only connects to “Sopranos” but pulls together the somewhat disjointed nature of what preceded it.
A veteran actor making the most of this star turn, Nivola is the real standout in a terrific cast, while Gandolfini represents Tony’s awkward teenage years — idolizing his uncle and the lifestyle during a stretch when going into the family business wasn’t envisioned for him, much like a young Michael Corleone.
In a recent Deadline interview Chase said he’s “angry” about this Warner Bros. release simultaneously premiering on the streaming service HBO Max (like CNN, units of WarnerMedia), but that only indicates the writer-producer might have been blinded by the allure of a “‘Sopranos’ movie.”
“The Many Saints of Newark” turns out to be a credible and rewarding film. But with a bit more seasoning and time in the oven, like its HBO predecessor, it actually might have risen into a truly sensational TV show.
“The Many Saints of Newark” premieres Oct. 1 in US theaters and on HBO Max. It’s rated R.
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