Film Review: State of Grace (1990)


Timing is everything. When you have ambitious gangster epic, it is not wise to have it released in cinemas exactly at the same time as someone else’s ambitious gangster epic. Not only that the both films would compete against each other and eat away their initial box office, but the inevitable comparisons are likely to make the lesser film of the two even look worse than when being released without competition. This thing happened to State of Grace, 1990 film directed by Phil Joanou, which had to compete against Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Goodfellas.

The plot is set in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City’s neighbourhood that was during the production of the film populated mainly by working class Irish Americans and notorious for the tough Irish Mob gangs. Protagonist, played by Sean Penn, is Terry Noonan, a Hell’s Kitchen native who returns to his old neighbourhood after ten year absence, partly caused by his desire to escape vicious cycle of poverty and gang violence. Upon his return, he visits a childhood friend Jackie Flannery (played by Gary Oldman) who now works as an enforcer in criminal gang led by his older brother Frankie (played by Ed Harris). Terry, who apparently tried to start criminal career of his own, is brought into Frankie’s gang, while, at the same time he reconnects with Jackie’s and Frankie’s sister Kathleen (played by Robin Wright) who used to be his girlfriend. Kathleen has, just like Terry, has left Hell’s Kitchen and found job as hotel clerk in better part of Manhattan. She and Terry rekindle their relationship while Frankie plans ambitious and potentially lucrative alliance with Mafia family led by Joe Borelli (played by Joe Viterelli). Those plans are endangered after the series of incidents brings Frankie’s gang and Mafia on a collision course. Terry, who is actually undercover policeman brought to Hell’s Kitchen in order to bring evidence against his childhood friends, now has an additional task of trying to prevent bloodshed.

State of Grace predictably flopped at the box office, but it received a consolation prize of mainly positive reviews from the critics. Arguments for the latter can be found mostly in two elements. The first is cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth which perfectly captured authentic locations of Hell’s Kitchen. The film was made in the middle of gentrification of the neighbourhood (the event which is addressed by the protagonists) and in many ways State of Grace can serve as a sort of historic document that could give good insight how Hell’s Kitchen looked like before those events. The other, more important, element of the film is the cast. Sean Penn gives very strong and intense performance as a young man torn because of competing loyalties towards the law, old friends he is supposed to put away and a woman he loves. Gary Oldman is, however, even more impressive as a neighbourhood thug whose violent actions are fuelled by drugs and alcohol, but whose mind is still shaped by traditional loyalty and who thinks that his criminal career is actually doing his neighbourhood a favour. Ed Harris is, on the other hand, quite menacing as seemingly regal gang boss who, unlike his unstable brother, concluded where the wind was blowing and was willing to sacrifice his old friends, family and neighbourhood for his slice of American Dream; Harris plays Frankie as someone who obviously doesn’t like his choices but nevertheless doesn’t have problem putting them in practice. Robin Wright is solid in the role introduced for the sake of obligatory romantic subplot; she has good chemistry with Penn, which isn’t that surprising in light that the two of them became couple and, later, spouses in real life. Among many character actors the one who stands out is Joe Viterelli in his film debut; the actor who would specialise in comical or near-comical roles of Mafia members is impressive in the straight and rather dark crime drama as cold, calculating and menacing boss who doesn’t have any problems establishing and maintaining the authority over his business partner.

Those strong performances, however, at times look like hurting rather than helping the film. The reason might be found in script by Dennis McIntyre, author who died during production and whose work has been allegedly finished, or at least doctored, by David Rabe. State of Grace was an ambitious project which had tried to do for Irish Mob what The Godfather did for Mafia or Once Upon a Time in America did for Jewish gangsters. Director Phil Joanou, however, was apparently at odds how to give this film the proper epic credentials and opted for the simplest solution – “epic” length. As a result, almost all scenes seem padded with repetitive dialogue and even some repetitive and unnecessary action. All that only shows how thin the plot is and how each action of the characters was easily predictable even by viewers not that familiar with Hollywood cliches. Poor, monotonous and annoying musical score by Ennio Morricone only reminds audience of much better films with the same subject. Joanou at times tries to add something to keep film interesting, like in suspenseful but ultimately overlong scene of meeting between Frankie and Borelli. Joanou doesn’t seem how to properly end the film and opts for spectacular, but stylised finale featuring irrational violence that seems like it was brought from Hong Kong heroic bloodshed film. Some viewers might appreciate this scene, but before it they must sit through more than two hours of disappointment.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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