1990 was a big year for the mob in Hollywood, which may explain why this excellent film didn't fair better at the box office. Granted, it's not as good as Miller's Crossing or Goodfellas, but it is superior to the Best Picture-nominated Godfather Part III (all 1990). State of Grace starts out as a fairly generic story about Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) returning to his childhood stomping grounds in Hell's Kitchen to find his best friend, Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman), is still crazy and Jackie's older brother, Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris), in charge of the gang. Of course Jackie's sister, Kathleen (Robin Wright), enters the picture and, of course, it's only a matter of minutes before she and Terry rekindle the old flame. But then the movie starts to explore much deeper issues. Hell's Kitchen in 1990 was undergoing the first signs of gentrification, causing the Irish to lose their homes and businesses. Frankie sees the angle and chooses to run the gang from his suburban house in Jersey while selling out the Kitchen for his own gains. Jackie represents the old neighborhood where you watch each other's back, no matter what. Terry has his own agenda; as an undercover cop, he struggles with the prospect of maybe having to bust his old buddies. As things heat up and the lies run deeper, the violence becomes more serious until it spins out of control. Director Phil Joanou keeps the tension mounting until the climatic final scene, which predicts Quentin Tarantino's highly stylized blood-and-guts slo-mo showdowns and pays homage to Scorsese's Taxi Driver at the same time. The entire cast glows, but Penn and Oldman are the stars. Oldman adds depth and heart to what could have simply been "the Crazy Guy" role and Penn speaks volumes with his trademark puppy dog eyes. Look for John Turturro and John C. Reilly in strong supporting roles. Although it flounders at points, State of Grace has all the elements to make it a smart character piece with a social comment.
by Scott Engel review