State of Grace (1990) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, brief nudity, sexuality and pervasive language
Running Time: 134 min.

Cast: Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Ed Harris, Robin Wright, John Turturro, John C. Reilly, Joe Viterelli, R.D. Call, Burgess Meredith, James Russo
Director: Phil Joanou
Screenplay: Dennis McIntyre
Review published July 18, 2005

At its heart, State of Grace isn't really a new kind of film in the small-time gangster genre, but it is an example of one that follows the formula with well-oiled precision.  What these movies all boil down to is loyalty, and how money and power can sometimes break the most powerful bonds of all -- family.  State of Grace fits this model to a tee, but with strong performances and gorgeous cinematography (Jordan Cronenweth, Blade Runner), this is a sleek and finely-tuned drama that should please those who typically enjoy crime cinema stories from the inside.

Sean Penn (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, U Turn) stars as Terry Noonan, who returns to his roots in New York's Hell's Kitchen district (aka Clinton) after many years away.  Unbeknownst to the guys in the neighborhood he grew up with, Terry has pent the last several years as a cop, and is now working undercover to crack down on the organized crime element that they are mostly composed of.  He is welcomed by the fellas with open arms, quickly becoming one of them, although he is becoming increasingly conflicted between his duty as a police officer and wanting to protect his friends within the crime family from getting killed, whether by the cops, rival gangs, or within their own unit.  His loyalties are fully in doubt when he rekindles an old relationship with the sister of the head of the gang, Kathleen (Wright, The Princess Bride), who is fighting her own struggles with wanting to divorce herself from all that her brothers represent.

It's hard to go wrong in the acting department when you have Penn, Oldman (True Romance, The Fifth Element) and Harris (Glengarry Glen Ross, Running Mates) in the cast, and in this respect, State of Grace definitely delivers some fine performances.  Despite the fact that the siblings have almost no family resemblance, they do make you believe they are everything they are supposed to be within the context of the film.  While Oldman gets the accolades for his energetic performance, it is really Penn's inner demons that provides the film with the right amount of conflict, always letting us be aware that fine lines are the difference between life and death, as well as right and wrong, out in the streets of New York.  Is Penn doing the noble thing by taking down the criminals, or is he a rat bastard, disowning himself from the way of life and people who helped him along the way?  It's the question that makes him sick to the pit of his stomach, and Penn shows it in his face with almost every scene.

For those who like their films on the hard-boiled side, State of Grace arrests your attention with gritty confrontations and morally ambiguous situations.  It's not The Godfather or GoodFellas, but Joanou (Final Analysis, Entropy) has crafted a nice looking film for those who love those movies and just can't get enough.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo