State Of Grace

1990, Movie, R, 134 mins

Review

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STATE OF GRACE, directed by Phil Joanou, is a violent, tortuous melodrama that labors mightily to be an Irish MEAN STREETS or a latter-day WILD BUNCH. Sean Penn plays Terry Noonan, an undercover cop who returns unannounced to New York's Hell's Kitchen, "dropped off by the angels," according to Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman), his childhood best friend. Noonan's task is to infiltrate the gang led by Jackie's brother, Tommy (Ed Harris). In the process, Noonan discovers he is still in love with his childhood sweetheart, Jackie and Tommy's sister, Kathleen (Robin Wright). Noonan is torn: Can he abjure loyalties to old friends or does he return to the habits of his youth? A series of insanely self-defeating betrayals and double-crosses leads to a vengeful bloodbath set against the backdrop of a St. Patrick's Day parade.

STATE OF GRACE is a long movie, yet its historical context remains unclear. Is it set today or in the 1970s, when the Westies gang perpetrated their futile crimes? One thing that is clear is that the film is drenched in religious imagery. Jackie's drunken confession in a cathedral, recurring references to angels and saints, and a final shootout right out of THE WILD BUNCH during the parade strain for significance, but they are a far cry from the powerful cross-cutting between the murders and the confirmation ceremony at the end of THE GODFATHER. There are some wonderful scenes in the film, however, including a 100-yard dash through sheets of flame during an arson, and the reunion between Kathleen and Noonan, during which she looks into his eyes and says in the most bluntly sexual way, "C'mon Terry no one forgets their first love, you know that."

The performances are uniformly good. Oldman's drunken psycho-greaser, a descendant of Robert DeNiro's Charlie-Boy in MEAN STREETS; Harris' gang leader; R.D. Call's fish-faced, malicious thug; and Burgess Meredith's tremulous cameo as Finn are all wonderful. But while based in part on the actions of the Westies, the behavior of most of the characters is so impenetrably stupid that it's ultimately difficult to care about them. There's no insight into what drives them, unless you count throwaway dialog like, "I'm Irish, we drink, we shoot people..."

For the most part, however, the dialog is very good. The screenplay, written by playwrights Dennis McIntyre and David Rabe (the latter uncredited), possesses the verve of writing for the stage. While the movie may be unconvincing scene by scene, the juicy language of the drunken, semiliterate characters holds our attention. In technical terms, STATE OF GRACE is impeccable, a great leap beyond Joanou's earlier work (THREE O'CLOCK HIGH; U2: RATTLE & HUM). Cameraman Jordan Cronenweth's camera movements and crisp photography of New York are assured; editor Claire Simpson's cutting is swift and razor sharp. Visually, STATE OF GRACE joins MILLER'S CROSSING as one of the best-looking movies in ages. But, as it nears its bloody ending, the film just gets dumber and dumber. (Graphic violence, excessive profanity, nudity, substance abuse.) leave a comment

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