Tony Soprano, the mob boss in “The Sopranos,” was many things: husband, father, animal lover, lady-killer, sociopathic capitalist, pop-culture sensation. Americans like their villains on the soft side, and Tony famously suffered from inner turmoil, manifested in panic attacks, to go with the blood on his hands. A mobster in therapy — with a sexy female shrink, no less — generated bountiful narrative tension, as did his overlapping gangland and extended families. All told, Tony was a perfect distillation of two great American passions: self-improvement and getting away with murder.
Created by David Chase, “The Sopranos” faded to enigmatic black in 2007, though it endures, including on HBO, its original home for six seasons. As a rule, we use the present tense when writing about fiction: Characters exist in the eternal now, or that’s the idea. But the death of James Gandolfini, who played Tony, complicates this because he and the show were interchangeable. With his lucid, quicksilver expressivity and a hulking, powerfully threatening physicality, Gandolfini made flesh Tony’s internal struggle, filling a potential cartoon with soul and, by extension, giving greater depth to the show. His absence is why I think of his signature character in the past tense.
It’s also a reason the movie spinoff “The Many Saints of Newark,” a busy, unnecessary, disappointingly ordinary origin story, doesn’t work. The movie certainly has pedigree. It was written by Chase with Lawrence Konner, who wrote a few episodes of “The Sopranos,” and directed by Alan Taylor, another series veteran. Jumping between time periods, it tracks the sentimental education (moral and emotional) of the young Tony, who in 1967 is an 11-year-old pipsqueak played by William Ludwig. After a lot of introductions and plot developments, the story jumps to Tony at 16, now played by Gandolfini’s son, Michael, who bears a striking resemblance to his father.