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.
“The Many Saints of Newark” premieres Oct. 1 in US theaters and on HBO Max. It’s rated R.