Any big-screen extension of a beloved TV series is bound to be greeted with a mix of anticipation and apprehension, and that’s doubly so when the series in question is a landmark like “The Sopranos.”
Created by David Chase, it starred the late James Gandolfini, who gave one of the greatest sustained dramatic performances in television history as New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano. Gandolfini’s psychologically complex Tony cleared a path for Walter White and other antiheroes who have helped define TV’s Second Golden Age.
Now comes a film prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark,” coscripted by Chase and directed by Alan Taylor. It’s set in the Newark of the late 1960s, and it features a bit of transgenerational/familial casting that’s, if not unprecedented, at least one for the record books — Michael Gandolfini, James’s son, in the role of teenage Tony.
It can’t have been easy portraying a character so unforgettably embodied by his father, but the younger Gandolfini acquits himself pretty well. Michael captures Tony’s impish and sensitive side more than his aura of menace, but in one scene the younger Gandolfini eerily channels the way his dad would, while seated, gaze upward from a slightly lowered head with a half-mischievous, half-threatening grin.
Yet young Tony is on the sidelines too much for “Saints” to succeed as an origin story, a portrait of the mobster as a young man. The movie doesn’t quite offer an in-depth explanation for how Tony Soprano became Tony Soprano. An irony lingering over “Saints” is that Chase famously chafed, in the scriptwriting he did before creating “The Sopranos,” at the storytelling limitations of TV, then exploded those limitations, and now finds himself confined by the time limitations of film.
However, as a “Goodfellas”-ish crime drama that vividly evokes time and place, “Saints” is rendered with enough bare-knuckled verve, unpredictability, and darkly glinting wit to make it work. It will have particular appeal to “Sopranos” fans, who know the backstories to the backstories, so to speak, and who get to take in younger versions of the characters they know well. They will not be terribly surprised to learn that the world Tony came from, like the world he made, was defined by crime and violence and family strife.
Much of the film is concerned with Tony’s idol, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), who runs a numbers racket, and Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a numbers runner for Dickie who emerges as a rival to him in more ways than one.
Like the adult Tony, Dickie sporadically tries to be good, but it just doesn’t take. As with the TV series, “Saints” illustrates the volatility and randomness of the mob milieu, where the smallest slight can have murderous consequences, and where women are a prize to be fought over and/or subjected to brutal treatment, illustrated by Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), the Italian bride of Dickie’s floridly thuggish father (Ray Liotta, in excellent form).
The issue of race, barely touched upon in the series, is foregrounded in the film. The mobsters are openly racist — it’s part of what leads Harold to strike out on his own — and so are the cops, and we see the 1967 riots that resulted from long-festering rage at pervasive racism.
Young Tony toys with the idea of going to college, but even before he hijacks an ice cream truck it’s clear that the tidal pull of the family business will prove too strong. The crisscrossing currents of past and future churn with particular resonance in a scene when Dickie proudly presents his baby son, Christopher, who begins crying at the sight of Tony. As any “Sopranos” watcher knows, Christopher will grow up to be a key member of the adult Tony’s crew, and will ultimately die at Tony’s hands. (We’re reminded of that by Michael Imperioli’s Christopher in the opening scene, speaking to us from beyond — actually, from — the grave.)
Easter eggs are scattered throughout “Saints.” For instance: The adult Tony and his crew revered the “Godfather” movies. In a fleeting moment in “Saints,” we learn that his sister Janice took Apollonia as her confirmation name.
Vera Farmiga is terrific as Tony’s mother, Livia, warped by bitterness. Farmiga channels the late, great Nancy Marchand in delivering Livia’s trademark “Ahh, go on!” and “Oh, poor you!” (Farmiga somewhat resembles Edie Falco’s Carmela Soprano. David Chase remains a Freudian to his marrow.) Corey Stoll’s turn as the hapless but dangerous Junior Soprano will do no harm to Stoll’s standing as one of the most interesting actors of our time.
Deep into “The Many Saints of Newark,” Tony heaves a couple of stolen stereo speakers out of his second-floor bedroom window and hollers: “I don’t want any part of this!” But by that point it’s already too late. And for Tony’s many future victims as well.
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK
Directed by Alan Taylor. Written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner. Starring Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Michael Gandolfini, Michela De Rossi, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Corey Stoll. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, suburbs, and streaming on HBO Max. 120 minutes. R (violence, language, sexual content).