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Lost Classics: “State of Grace” (1990)

February 16, 2012

I recently attended “A Conversation with Gary Oldman” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and was reminded of one of my favorite films of the ’90s, now almost forgotten: State of Grace, the Irish Mob movie in which Oldman costarred with Sean Penn, Ed Harris and Robin Wright. I was in my early 20s when it came out and had just moved to New York City, and I wondered how it would hold up after two decades and seen through more sophisticated—or maybe just jaded—eyes.

The answer is: In some ways, it’s better than ever. The movie didn’t make much of an impact upon its initial release, as it was hampered by a vague title (although it’s explained nearly two hours into the 134-minute running time, it still doesn’t make much sense) and a hurting studio (Orion would declare bankruptcy the following year). But now it feels like an elegy for a lost city. It opens with a shot of Sean Penn against the Manhattan skyline—complete with the Twin Towers—and as his undercover cop Terry Noonan infiltrates the crime family losing its grip on Hell’s Kitchen, which had been renamed “Clinton” by yuppie invaders, the sense of tragedy expands beyond the personal betrayal of Terry bringing down his childhood friends.

The film perhaps too consciously styles itself as an Irish Godfather—setting the final showdown between Penn and Ed Harris (as mob boss Frankie Flannery) opposite the St. Patrick’s Day parade feels a bit forced. But the acting is impeccable. Harris is at his simmering best as a thug with the cold eyes of a businessman; all he wants to do is sell out to the Italians and retire to Phoenix, but his hot-blooded Family members—includling Oldman in an incendiary turn as his little brother Jackie—keep getting in the way. (Harris does a very different but equally effective slow burn as John McCain in HBO’s upcoming Game Change.)

Penn’s performance is more restrained than Oldman’s, because of the pressure-cooker situation his character’s in, but he blows his lid in a few exquisitely played scenes with John Turturro as his NYPD handler. And the tension between Penn and Robin Wright, as Kathleen Flannery—the little sister who tried to escape the old neighborhood by moving on up to the East Side—foreshadows the chemistry and volatility that would define their relationship on and off screen for the next 20 years. Then previously best known for The Princess Bride, Wright shows the kind of toughness and range that would later come to full blossom in films as The Pledge (directed by Penn) and the current knockout Rampart.

State of Grace now possesses an even greater sense of loss due to the fate of the talent behind the camera. Director Phil Joanou, who’d debuted promisingly with Three O’Clock High, was only 28 at the time and showed “signs of becoming a real director,” as my ex-EW colleague Owen Gleiberman wisely noted in his Grace review, “but they’re still only signs.” Alas, those signs proved false, as he went from emulating Coppola and Scorsese here to ripping off Hitchcock in 1992’s awful Final Analysis and was most recently reduced to directing The Rock in 2006’s Gridiron Gang.

Writer Dennis McIntyre’s story is even sadder. Grace was his only screenplay; an acclaimed if underproduced playwright, he died of cancer at the age of 47 only months before the film was released. His ear for dialogue was spot-on; a scene in which Burgess Meredith implores Penn not to brutalize him by repeatedly declaring, “I’m an old man eating stewed tomatoes from a can” haunts me to this day.

Of course, the unspoken reason for the Oldman tribute at Lincoln Center was to campaign for Oscar votes. He’s received his long-overdue first nomination as Best Actor for his mesmerizingly low-key performance as aging secret agent George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The character couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to Jackie Flannery. If for no other reason than this, I’m rooting for Oldman to win. He’s truly achieved a state of grace.

Have you ever seen State of Grace? And do you have any “Lost Classics” to recommend?

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  1. State of Grace is one of the best films ever made. Just look at the cast. Everything is epic here. The NY scenery and environment, the acting, the plot(in it´s simplicity) and last but not the music by no other than the legend Ennio Morricone…
    The Pledge however is just a remake of The Cold Light Of Day and a not very good one at that…

  2. Great article very glad somebody’s acknowledging Denis McIntyre I wonder if his passing is why he wasn’t given more credit when infernal affairs and then the department came out.

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