State Of Grace

USA | 1990 | directed by Phil Joanou

Logline: An undercover cop returns to his NYC stomping ground in order to bring an Irish-blooded criminal family and associates to justice, but finds the danger too close for comfort.

One of the best gangster flicks set in New York City, Phil Joanou’s blistering tale of corruption, deception and betrayal amidst the noise, squalor and filthy beauty of Hell’s Kitchen, the Irish core of the Big (rotten) Apple, brims with violence and seethes with conviction. It also has a brilliant cast giving superlative performances, many of them at the peak of their game.

Sean Penn, who had come to attention in Taps and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, then stolen the limelight in The Falcon and the Snowman and At Close Range, proved his mettle further in Colors and Casualties of War, but came out with both guns blazing as Terry Noonan, the cop caught in a tortured struggle between doing his job and trying to save his dearest friend, Jackie (Gary Oldman). In the process he re-ignites a love with Jackie’s sister Kathleen (Robin Wright), and becomes the subject of suspicion from Jackie and Kathleen’s older brother, Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris), the Irish mob boss and a cold and ruthless killer.

State of Grace is made with the same attention to detail, attitude and atmosphere as Coppola’s Italian masterwork The Godfather, but it also brings to mind the streetwise, visceral virtuosity of another master of modern cinema, Martin Scorsese (while in the final explosive set-piece the director channels Sam Peckinpah). Joanou had come from a background directing video clips for U2 and Tom Petty. While still at high school he worked on Star Trek: The Motion Picture under John Dykstra and received a Special Visual Consultant credit. After making U2’s concert movie Rattle and Hum the big boys came knocking and Joanou was given the chance to make the movie he wanted.

48-year-old screenwriter Dennis McIntyre wrote just one screenplay before succumbing to stomach cancer during the production of his work. You can feel a sense of personal experience permeating the words of his characters. McIntyre grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, and would’ve seen first hand the loyalty and camaraderie, the brutality and savagery of the lives of Irish and Italian gangsters. Director Joanou does a fantastic job of capturing the bristling energy, the paranoid urgency of Terry, Jackie, Kathleen and Frankie’s relationships.

Of note are some of the superb support actors that surround those key players; John C. Reilly, John Turturro, R.D. Call, Joe Viterelli, and in a tiny, but pivotal scene Burgess Meredith. It’s a dream cast featuring several future legends, many of whom look so damn young when watching the movie now. Gary Oldman threatens to scorch the screen with his incendiary performance as the volatile alcoholic Jackie. He nails the vulnerable intensity of his character with a sledgehammer. Penn and Wright began their tumultuous real-life relationship on the set of this movie. Their chemistry on-screen reflects this.

State of Grace sweats like a motherfucker, yes, it’s full of foul-mouthed diatribes about trying to do what’s right, in the boiling brew of everything that’s wrong; a family torn apart by their own code of crooked ethics. While it might not be of quite the same calibre as Scorsese’s masterpiece Goodfellas (released the same year), the shadow of which it immediately fell under, it is another dynamic and totally assured study of ethnic-American crime and punishment, and is hugely under-rated.