The Many Saints of Newark has a couple of things going for it. First, The Sopranos was ground-breaking television that kept us curiously onside as big Tony tried to articulate his troubles to his shrink, while stylishly skewering the hypocrisy of church-going Catholics who kill. They prized family values of loyalty, community and support while behaving like merciless thugs. One slip and you’re whacked.

The second is the actor Michael Gandolfini, who in The Many Saints of Newark plays young Tony and is the actual son of the late James Gandolfini, who for six seasons brought Tony Soprano to the screen. Casting him, and he had to audition for it, gives the movie an uncanny truth because some of his mannerisms and intonation are such ghostly echoes of his father.

The title is a mystery until its significance is explained. The many saints refers to the surname of Dickie Moltisanti (UK actor Alessandro Nivola), who is the adored uncle that young Tony looks up to, and the father of Chris Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) in The Sopranos. Dickie is full of warmth for his nephew, who he is slowly introducing to a life of crime. “You say to yourself it’s the last time I ever steal something, it’s that simple,” Dickie counsels him.

When Tony’s father goes away to do time, Dickie steps in. As a role model, he is a shameless philanderer who takes as his mistress the gorgeous Italian girl who married his father, now dead, while fathering a son with his wife, who either doesn’t know about the mistress or is too scared to ask. He has a dreadful temper and it becomes pretty obvious that for all his manly swagger, he is a petulant bully at heart.

The Newark of the title refers to the violent New York race riots of 1967 in which people died, buildings were smashed and part of the city was looted and burned.

African-American storylines are intertwined here as Moltisanti and his gang try to stay ahead of competitors, including emerging black networks who are getting a taste for heroin. Race hatred is explicit – Tony’s father is outraged that a black doctor became a neighbour while he was in jail – and provides a back story for the Sopranos’ luxurious compound way out in New Jersey that big Tony drives to at the start of each episode.

The first half of the film jumps around and achieves little beyond introducing us to Dickie and the wonderful Livia (Vera Farmiga), Tony’s mum, a fiercely incongruous combination of dysfunction, ferocity and sang-froid who turns up her nose at the thought of sleeping pills among everything else that is going on.

But it warms up and the presence of Tony as a youth makes it more worthwhile. Gandolfini, heavy-set and tall like his father, is watchful and smart, a precursor for who he would become. There is a throwback 1960s soundtrack that includes Van Morrison and Gil Scott-Heron, and Tony listens to music with his head practically inside the woofers that Uncle Dickie stole. At school there is not much learning going on but he has a high IQ and shows leadership.

There are some Sopranos-worthy twists and hits as the world around Tony falls apart and, as the familiar “Woke Up This Morning” starts, we can see the path he takes.

The Many Saints of Newark opens in cinemas nationally on November 4.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.