Review: State of Grace (1990)

Sean Penn, Gary Oldman and Ed Harris show that talent can really outshine an average script.

When you think of 1990 mafia films, Goodfellas and The Godfather part III inevitably spring to mind. While one is rightly lauded as one of the greatest films ever made, the other is just as well remembered for being a poor conclusion to its critically-acclaimed predecessors. State of Grace fell somewhere in the middle, meaning it remained largely anonymous upon its release and unheard of to most. It’s a shame, because while it isn’t anywhere near the quality of Goodfellas, there’s some fantastic elements to this that should make it more recognised, chiefly the acting from its three leads, Sean PennEd Harris and, in particular, Gary Oldman. Not to mention a fresh-faced Claire Underwood, Robin Wright.

It starts with Terry Noonan (Penn) returning to his old NYC digs, Hell’s Kitchen, after a 10 year hiatus in Boston, but what he’s doing back remains largely mysterious. He reacquaints himself with his old pals, brothers Jackie and Frankie Flannery (Oldman and Harris), and their sister Kathleen (Wright) whom he had a previous thing with. It becomes apparent that he’s now a cop working undercover to infiltrate the Flannerys, as Frankie is looking to establish his Irish crime organisation. Unfortunately for Frankie, brother Jackie is a bit of loose cannon and stirs up trouble with the rival Italian mafia, showing Noonan that nothing will get in the way of obtaining power – even family.

Let’s start with the positive; the acting is first class. A young Penn gives a convincing, understated performance as the naïve and conflicted Noonan, while Oldman clearly set the standard for himself with a hyperactive display of an alcoholic psychopath, arguably a career-best. As close friends they are chalk and cheese but their rapport complements each other throughout the film. Then there’s Harris, probably the most under-rated actor in Hollywood, and here he just oozes menace with his steely blue eyes.

But unfortunately there’s only so much actors can do to carry a picture. To give a film – and a gangster one at that – higher status there has to be a story worth being told. And this is where the film falls down. Flat, in fact.

The plot lacks scope and there’s not any real depth to our main characters. There’s no sympathy for Noonan as the undercover officer (John Turturro makes an appearance as his superior) as his actions mainly puts himself in jeopardy. We know that Frankie wants power, but we don’t know how far along he’s established (the gang is based on the real-life Irish mafia, The Westies). It only has him having showdowns with his own people, and the one time there’s a chance for him to display any real supremacy outside of his group, he goes for a hug. Basically, he’s not a very good mob boss.

Not only that, the final stand-off is bitterly disappointing. It’s well-crafted and edited, but it also enforces how inept Frankie and his whole group are, missing shot after shot at one target, and all at the same time.

However, there are a couple of memorable scenes with some nice tension, and the most watchable and intriguing parts are when the main characters are paired off with each other – none more so then Penn and Wright, who have some sizzling chemistry (not surprisingly as they continued the romance off-screen).

With a haunting score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone, up against the backdrop of New York City, State Grace should have been held in higher regard. It’s confined to being a hidden gem, despite its flaws, that’s largely a show reel for its talent on screen, worth seeing for Oldman’s knockout performance alone.

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