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'Many Saints of Newark' review: Prequel is heaven for 'Sopranos' fans

Michael Gandolfini as a young Tony Soprano, left,

Michael Gandolfini as a young Tony Soprano, left, and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti in "The Many Saints of Newark."   Credit: Warner Bros. Picrtures

PLOT The story of a budding young mobster and his favorite uncle.

CAST Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini, Leslie Odom Jr.

RATED R (extreme violence)

LENGTH 2:00

WHERE In theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Oct. 1.

BOTTOM LINE Heaven for “Sopranos” fans, though this is really less a prequel than a spin-off.

Quick, name Tony Soprano’s favorite "Godfather" movie. It’s "Part II," according to the 1999 pilot episode of HBO’s "The Sopranos." We’re told Tony loves the scenes about the Old World — the story before the story.

More than 20 years after that series launched a new Golden Age of Television and turned James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano into America’s favorite fictional mobster, writer-creator David Chase and his longtime director Alan Taylor have given the character a prequel of his own, "The Many Saints of Newark." Gandolfini died in 2013, but in a poignant (and much-publicized) twist, his son, a relatively unknown Michael Gandolfini, steps into the role of young Tony.

Fans of the show should be aware: Though Michael Gandolfini is convincing as a bright, sensitive kid born into a family of criminals and killers, he’s not the focus of this film. "Many Saints" is really the story of a character fans never saw: Tony’s beloved "uncle" — technically a cousin — Dickie Moltisanti, the father of "The Sopranos'" Christopher (Michael Imperioli), who is shown in this film as a baby. (The Italian surname loosely translates to "many saints.")

The movie also introduces a new character, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), who wants to build a Black crime empire to rival the Sopranos and their wider DiMeo clan. Yet another character narrates — from the grave. All of this muddies the movie’s waters, but one thing is clear: Alessandro Nivola, known mostly for art-house roles ("Coco Before Chanel," "Disobedience"), delivers a breakthrough performance as the volatile, charismatic and often guilt-ridden Dickie.

Dickie’s is a classic mobster’s tale with shades of Greek tragedy. When his father (an excellent Ray Liotta) returns from Italy with a sexy young bride, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi, a captivating Italian making her American film debut), an Oedipal complex rears its head. At work, Dickie has other problems: The Black marches and riots of the late 1960s are giving his employee, Harold, some unwelcome ideas.

"Many Saints" has much to recommend it, beginning with the team of Chase-Taylor, whose writing and directing blend seamlessly. Nearly every actor is perfectly cast, notably Corey Stoll as Uncle Junior; Vera Farmiga as Tony’s unbearable mother, Livia; and Jon Bernthal as Tony’s hardheaded dad, Johnny. One unexpected problem is the character of Harold: He’s such a commanding figure, and Odom plays him with such spirit and intelligence, that he divides our loyalties and nearly takes over the movie. That kind of complexity was a hallmark of the series, but it works less well in the tight format of a feature film.

Rolling the closing credits over "Woke Up This Morning," the show’s bluesy theme song, may not be quite enough to give fans that full-circle feeling. (At least it wasn’t Journey’s "Don’t Stop Believin,’" which ended the series on a famously cryptic note in 2007.) As for Nivola’s electrifying Dickie Moltisanti, a prequel before this prequel may be in order.

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