The Many Saints of Newark is the kind of project that often gets described in a certain kind of news article or film review as "the feature fans have been waiting on for fourteen years", before going on to talk about whether or not the wait has been rewarded. I have only this to say: I'm a fan, and I wasn't fucking waiting for it. I might first suggest that The Sopranos, the series that inaugurated the very concept of Prestige Television as such, underwent a none-too-severe but unmistakable decline in quality over its six seasons between 1999 and 2007,* and asking David Chase, the creator and showrunner who oversaw that decline, to add another couple of hours of content feels like it could just be asking from trouble. I might then continue by suggesting that The Sopranos leaves no holes in its narrative: "perfect" might be a stretch, but any questions it leaves open are the ambiguities and uncertainties of great drama. Certainly, I have not spent the last decade and half ruminating on the question, "how was it that Tony Soprano, a Neapolitan-American from New Jersey whose father and uncles were all involved in the mafia, born into a community with a strong mafia presence, where the mafiosi were valorised as heroes of that community, grow up to become a high-ranking mafia leader?" I think I was prepared to make the leap of faith that he had some reason.

But here we are with The Many Saints of Newark, anyway, in which Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner take us to Newark, New Jersey, in 1967 and 1971, to find Tony as a tween (William Ludwig) and teenager (Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini, who played Tony on the show). Admittedly, suggesting that the film is simply the story of how a young man falls in with the mob is selling it short: it's also the story of the 1967 race riots that hit Newark, along with many other cities in the United States, and the story of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a mob soldier with a tortured relationship with his father "Hollywood Dick" (Ray Liotta), and eyes for his father's very much younger new bride from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). And that's just in '67! One could go so far as to say that The Many Saints of Newark has, say, about 12 TV episodes worth of stories, and Chase and Konner have done a fairly poor job of crushing them down into two hours.

That comes later, though. I had large qualms about the film, but I was prepared to find it at least diverting, in the way that unimaginative but good mob movies can be diverting. This lasted almost several seconds into the movie, at which point the first scene makes its presence felt. Herein, the camera tracks through a cemetery, and as it approaches different gravestones, we here the person buried there pipe up on the soundtrack, chatting about how they died and what the afterlife is like. I believe my exact response to this development was "are you fucking kidding?" After gliding past several random people we needn't worry about, the camera arrives at the grave of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), who immediately makes it clear that you had better have watched The Sopranos already if you want to follow what's going on here, by spoiling the circumstances of his death from the show's final batch of episodes. And then, a propos of nothing, he rewinds back to 1967 so that he can grouse about how shitty his uncle Tony was, or whatever.

I confess that the movie lost me here, and wasn't going to get me back. But honestly, The Many Saints of Newark isn't even trying. The sheer clutter of the screenplay just doesn't work: causes are set up and then left dangling, character arcs are put into motion and then forgotten about. The 1967 race riots dominate the entire first half of the film in the character of Dickie's sometime employee, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr.), more or less taking over as the A-plot from the story of how Dickie outflanks his dad and begins rising to power in the crime syndicate, and clearly propelling us towards a conflict between the Italian and Black mobs in the second half and this conflict not only doesn't manifest, it seems that it was never even thought of as something that might manifest. Chase has apparently wanted to make a film about the riots for many years; so make a film about the riots, don't cumbersomely wedge them into a Sopranos prequel that doesn't need to exist, just to then dump them when the action skips forward, with no more explanation for why they were ever in the film to begin with than "well, they're interesting, aren't they?"

Simply put, this isn't a movie. It isn't a TV miniseries, either. It's a combination of the weaknesses of both, racing through too much story and puking names and relationships and data points at us without really clarifying what they're supposed to do, often because they don't do anything, they're just there as fun little nuggets for Sopranos superfans with an encyclopedic knowledge of every random background character. This is all directed with a limp lack of urgency by Sopranos veteran Alan Taylor, whose most significant feature film to date has been 2013's Thor: The Dark World, the MCU film that even MCU fans can't really pretend is very good. The pacing was probably unsalvageable, but in Taylor's hands, it doesn't even look especially good; he's not blocking his actors interestingly, but just stringing them out in lines, and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau adds to these perfunctory compositions some alarmingly dismal color grading, swathing literally everything in a muddy shade of some kind of yellowed teal. Perhaps it is unfair to blame Morgenthau for this, perhaps it was taken away from him in post. But I want to blame somebody.

Insofar as The Many Saints of Newark has literally anything to offer other bundle of mob movie clichés presented inelegantly, it's that the cast is pretty good. Gandolfini fils is a bit flavorless and lacks his dad's screen presence, but the film doesn't end up calling on him to do very much, and he's good at presenting Tony's growing sense of sneering disdain for the world around him; Nivola is stuck playing Every Wiseguy In Every Mob Movie, but he does so with the appropriate amount of sweaty focus. The star of the cast, by a great big margin, is Vera Farmiga as Tony's sharp, hawklike mother Livia. Giving great performances in underwritten roles in movies that don't deserve her is basically Farmiga's whole thing, so it's not surprising that she blows into the movie like a thunderstorm, instantly making every scene she's involved in feel more charged with tension and a sense of moral decay; she also does this while slowly shading in the version of the character played by Nancy Marchand in the TV show, not exactly impersonating Marchan so much as pulling in more and more of her vocal tonality as the film goes on, augmenting what's already a fully worked-out performance. Honestly, I'm enough of a Farmiga partisan to consider that enough; despite everything, I think I'm actually glad I watched The Many Saints of Newark, if only to get to see her performance. But to see more of The Sopranos... no, it was resting comfortably in its grave, and nothing about this rickety project leads me to believe it shouldn't have been left there.

*Specifically, I think the quality progression goes like this: Season 1 > Season 2 = Season 3 > Season 4 = Season 5 > Season 6, and only the last of these made me actually wonder if it was worth calling the show "not great".