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Joey Coco Diaz and Alessandro Nivola in The Many Saints of Newark.Barry Wetcher/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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  • The Many Saints of Newark
  • Directed by Alan Taylor
  • Written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner
  • Starring Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr. and Michael Gandolfini
  • Classification R; 120 minutes
  • Available in theatres starting Oct. 1

Deep into The Sopranos’ unparalleled six-season HBO run, James Gandolfini’s weary anti-hero Tony Soprano chastises a fellow gangster for indulging in relentless and arbitrary nostalgia over dinner. “ ‘Remember when …?’ is the lowest form of conversation,” Tony tells the reminiscent-prone Paulie Walnuts before walking away, a dead look in his eyes. If only The Sopranos’ brain trust took their lead character’s insight to heart, because The Many Saints of Newark, a Sopranos prequel as long-awaited as it has been long-dreaded, finally arrives in theatres this week as a very expensive example of “Remember when …?”

The feature-film extension of the greatest – yes, greatest – television series ever made is less a reminder of the brilliance of Sopranos mastermind David Chase and more an anguished warning against running back to the past for fear of disappointing the future.

I suppose that The Many Saints of Newark was doomed from the start. Or, rather, the end. When The Sopranos went off the air in 2007 with a giant question mark of a finale, Chase and his collaborators delivered a capstone that, for anyone paying attention, was exactly in line with the series’s subversive sensibilities. The Sopranos was many things – a violent crime thriller, a deeply felt ode to Italian-American culture, a wrenching family/Family drama, a hilarious comedy of mafioso errors – but it was primarily a vicious satire. A sharp and bloody deconstruction of the American Dream and the depths we all sink to in order to achieve it.

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The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel film to the classic HBO series The Sopranos.Barry Wetcher/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

What’s more: The Sopranos never gave audiences what they thought they wanted. More internecine mob warfare? Too bad, Chase would offer domestic turmoil instead. What about the fate of the Russian who disappeared in Pine Barrens? Tough luck, we’ll never know. Does Tony live or die? Go to Hell! The Sopranos generated legions of fans by being explicitly fan-reticent. Which makes The Many Saints of Newark such a puzzling and crushing disappointment: this is fan service writ large.

Would you like to find out exactly how Tony’s father Johnny Boy landed in jail? Or how Uncle Junior originally injured his back? Good news! How about an endless parade of groan-inducing callbacks to the series’s most famous moments? And I don’t mean subtle homages that contextualize The Sopranos’ greatest hits. More like full-throated “ahem!” coughs that erase any thoughtfulness that Chase and company originally evinced. It is not enough, for example, to have The Many Saints of Newark include a scene where a bird appears just before a murder, echoing Christopher Moltisanti’s avian paranoia in the series. The film must also have a character explain just why seeing a bird is a bad omen, in case anyone’s ribs needed further poking.

The many curious decisions of Chase – sharing creative duties here with regular Sopranos writer Lawrence Konner and director Alan Taylor (the latter responsible for some of the series’s best episodes, including the all-timer “Kennedy and Heidi”) – start from the film’s opening scene and quickly pile up into a cringe-inducing compilation of head-slappers.

Narrated from beyond the grave by – spoiler alert for a 20-plus-year-old TV series! – whacked doofus Christopher (Michael Imperioli, the only series cast member making a return), The Many Saints of Newark tells the story of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Chris’s numbers-running father and mentor to Tony. Well, I should clarify: the film is mostly about Dickie. For understandable reasons, Chase and Konner don’t seem quite confident that audiences want another tale about an anxious New Jersey scoundrel. So, they messily bifurcate their narrative to also follow Dickie’s rival, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), whose ascent in Newark’s Black criminal underworld is partly fuelled by the city’s 1967 riots.

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James Gandolfini's son Michael does a great job convincing the audience this is exactly the same Tony Soprano who we have come to love and loathe.Barry Wetcher/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

But, wait a second: what’s a Sopranos movie without Tony? Not much, I guess, as the script makes further room for a third plank following the upbringing of everyone’s favourite future waste-management consultant: first as a young boy (William Ludwig) in 1967, then a few years later as a teenager (Michael Gandolfini, James’s own son). The result is an indecisive and shapeless drama that never seems confident in the characters or situations it has created.

Dickie, for instance, starts off as a morally conflicted echo (or, rather, predecessor) to Tony: a man who wants to do right, but is thwarted by forces both domestic and societal. And Nivola, who resembles Sopranos heavy David (Richie Aprile) Proval to a distracting degree, does as best a job he can in making us care about the many tensions pulling Dickie’s life apart. There is his pained relationship with his terrifying father “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), his childish desire for his father’s new wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), his failure to broker peace between the Italians and Harold’s crew. Yet thanks to Chase and Konner’s impatience with Dickie’s arc – can we make this guy as complicated and compelling as Tony in approximately one-hundredth of the running time? – the character is as thin as a slice of gabagool.

I’d feel less raw if Harold or Young Tony were treated more delicately, but no dice. Everyone here feels pulled from a crowdsourced draft of Sopranos fan-fic.

At least some of the performers fight against the tide. In addition to Nivola, the young Gandolfini just about accomplishes the impossible: reminding audiences the power of his late father’s presence while offering something new, too. The actor’s undeniable family resemblance helps, but Michael offers more than an adolescent imitation: there is something genuinely awe-inspiring in how he convinces you that, yes, this is exactly the same Tony Soprano who we have come to love and loathe, just a few decades younger.

And Liotta, cementing the Scorsese-to-Chase talent pipeline, nails a tricky dual role, making “Hollywood Dick” engagingly wretched while later dialling it down as his more solemn twin brother Sally.

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Ray Liotta, centre, nails a tricky dual role in the film.Barry Wetcher/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Many of the other actors, though, go the cosplay route. Everyone from Corey Stoll (playing a young Uncle Junior) to John Magaro (Silvio) to Billy Magnussen (Paulie) deliver performances fit for Halloween keggers. Sure, I got a chuckle watching Green Book Oscar-winner Nick Vallelonga popping up as a younger version of his father Tony Lip, who played gang boss Carmine on the original series. And there are fascinating layers to Vera Farmiga’s work, given how she channels both Nancy Marchand and Edie (Carmela Soprano) Falco in her rendition of Tony’s psychotic mother Livia. But mostly, this is Sopranos: The Muppet Baby Years.

In a perversely admirable turn, the filmmakers save their absolute worst touch for the movie’s final few seconds. Whereas the series closed with a now-immortal musical cue courtesy of Journey, The Many Saints of Newark ends with such an obvious and crass needle-drop that I nearly passed out in a Tony-esque panic attack. It is the most depressing “Remember When …?” moment you will have in a theatre (or, who are we kidding, at home) this year.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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