Producers: David Chase, Lawrence Konner and Nicole Lambert   Director: Alan Taylor   Screenplay: David Chase and Lawrence Konner   Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, Michela De Rossi, Michael Gandolfini, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, Samson Moeakiola, William Ludwig, Mattea Conforti and Alexandra Intrator   Distributor: Warner Bros.

Grade: C+ 

Ever since the series closed with that famous—or infamously—ambiguous blackout in 2007, fans of “The Sopranos” have been wondering whether David Chase would have more to say about the New Jersey mob family.  The death of the indispensable James Gandolfini in 2013 made the idea of a sequel unthinkable, but a prequel is another matter, so here it is, with the high-school age Tony played by Gandolfini’s son Michael (William Ludwig plays him as an adolescent). 

The film can be described as a tale of how Tony became the conflicted, troubled mob boss of the series, but a decidedly oblique one, because he’s really a peripheral character here who takes center stage only occasionally.  The real protagonist is his “uncle” Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola)—the name giving the movie its title—who becomes young Tony’s idol, a caring surrogate father the boy needs since his biological father Johnny (Jon Bernthal) is often gone in prison, and rough and distant even when home.  Johnny’s wife Livia (Vera Farmiga) is home, but volatile and prone to periods of depression. 

Dickie has a strained relationship with his own father “Hollywood” Dick (Ray Liotta), who returns home from a trip to Italy with a beautiful young wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi).  Dickie is attracted to Giuseppina himself, and reacts violently when his father abuses her, just as he did Dickie’s mother.  In time Giuseppina will become Dickie’s mistress, and the mother of Christopher, who in the series is Tony’s “nephew” and protégé.  Christopher appears here as an infant, but also acts as a disembodied narrator from the grave, voiced by Michael Imperioli.

While the script offers the expected glimpses of the machinations within the mob family—including Johnny Soprano’s older brother Corrado or “Junior” (Corey Stoll) and Tony’s eventual lieutenants Paulie (Billy Magnussen), Silvio (John Magaro), and Big Pussy (Samson Moeakiola)—the major emphases of the film are Dickie’s relationship with his father and stepmother and his alliance-turned-rivalry with erstwhile football teammate, African-American Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr.).

As the story opens in 1967, Harold is a close associate of Dickie, serving as his chief collector in the Newark numbers racket in the city’s black neighborhood.  But he begins to have higher ambitions, and decides to try to establish his own numbers-running operation.  That inevitably causes a feud with Dickie’s crew, which leads to violence—some of it pretty graphic—and death, especially after Harold’s influence extends into Dickie’s family circle. 

To make the oncoming war between Dickie and Harold even more dramatically potent, it’s set against the Newark race riots of June, 1967, which were sparked by brutal police treatment of a black cab driver and are employed, a bit tastelessly one might argue, as part of Dickie’s anger with his father and Harold’s determination to set his own criminal path.  One can understand the impulse to give the plot a dose of topicality for contemporary audiences with tis thread, but frankly it’s a departure from the series, which never really treated the black-white social divide with much more than an occasional nod.

Periodically the focus shifts from Moltisanti to the young Tony Soprano’s none-too-happy life with Johnny, Livia and sister Janice (played first by Alexandra Intrator and then Mattea Conforti). One also catches glimpses of many other characters from the series in their younger days, though they’re generally quite fleeting.  As for Anthony, the screenplay shows the struggle he faces between an inclination to be good and the inevitable slide toward the dark side—demonstrated by an early attempt to run a numbers game in elementary school, the later theft of an ice cream truck (though he uses it to give out free cones to kids) and an attempt to use his connections to get booze for a party.

Perhaps the biggest link to the series, though, is in the confessional or debate moments when Tony has to consider the options open to him, though a scene in which baby Christopher recoils from Tony suggests that his future is predetermined.)    The very end of the movie—designed to mimic the series’ closing blackout (and coming right after the screenplay’s one big shock)—indicates that the choice he makes results from his devotion to Dickie, even though the older man had, toward the end, decided to shut the boy out of his life.

That decision, moreover, derives from the more extended confessional episodes in the picture, in which Dickie is the one struggling between the different sides of his character and seeking advice as to what he should do from another member of the family, whose identity won’t be revealed here but provides one of the few cases when the film manages to capture the oddball, quirky humor the series reveled in.

Those sequences, unfortunately, also emphasize the superiority of the series to the film.  The sessions the grown Tony had with Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Melfi had a complexity and depth that Dickie’s with his confessor can’t match.  Partially that’s because Nivola is no Gandolfini.  He’s an agreeable actor, and tries to give Dickie the shading of a significant figure, but ultimately he’s pretty nondescript.  The young Gandolfini looks the part, as one might expect, but he’s certainly not yet as accomplished a=as his father was. And though some of the other actors—Farmiga and Stoll most notably—manage to add some nuance, most are relegated to doing what are more imitations than performances.  As for Odom, he certainly brings a simmering intensity to the ambitious Harold, but that part of the narrative is the aspect of the film that least resembles the series. 

Nor does “Many Saints” particularly look like the series, though director Alan Taylor certainly has ties to it, having helmed seven episodes, most in the final season.  There was a crispness and precision to the show’s visuals that are smoothed out here, with Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography and Christopher Tellefsen’s editing more anonymous than distinctive.  But Bob Shaw’s production design and Amy Westcott’s costumes practically reek of period ambience.

The central problem with the movie, though, is that ultimately it doesn’t offer much new insight into what drove the Moltisanti-Soprano families as units or, more crucially, what made Tony Soprano tick.  Instead it comes across as a pretty ordinary mob drama with a curiously flat protagonist, totally lacking the resonance of something like the “Godfather” saga.  The best comparison, odd as it might seem, might be to the second “Star Wars” trilogy.  The first three movies had told audiences all they needed to know; the second three merely showed them what they already knew in tedious detail, which was why they were so dull.  (Of course, they were also inferior in a host of other ways.) 

Nevertheless devotees of the series will probably enjoy “Many Saints” for filling in some blanks, especially since Chase hasn’t prolonged his explanations, as Lucas did, at seemingly interminable length.  (They can also tell the rest of us where the movie contradicts the series, as it probably does somewhere.) 

As for those who are unacquainted with “The Sopranos,” “The Many Saints of Newark” will probably leave them wondering what all the fuss was about.