Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) has a secret, and he is heading back to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen where he grew up for reasons he is unwilling to disclose. What he has done is be involved with a drugs deal where he apparently shot dead two of his contacts in front of his associate, then ran off, which could have prompted him to seek shelter in his old haunts, but earlier in the day he had been given the guns he was holding by one of the men, Nick (John Turturro), he shot, so it could well be there is a degree of subterfuge occurring. Whatever, once back home he immediately seeks out his childhood friend Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman) who is delighted to see him and welcomes him with open arms; he is the brother of up-and-coming Irish-American mob boss Frankie (Ed Harris)…
And all three are ludicrously overacting in a crime drama that attempted to do for Irish-American gangsters what a whole bunch of other movies had done for the Italian-American Mafia, only these guys were supposed to be a lot wilder and out of control, so you were offered what you imagine director Phil Joanou wanted to be an answer, or at least a companion piece, to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. However, 1990 was the year Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was released and that was the only mob movie anyone wanted to talk about back then, so State of Grace slipped under the radar somewhat, though it did amass a cult following by and by, mostly from those who responded to its sentimental treatment of thugs.
But while it has that band of champions who will sing its praises and make sure to watch it while getting drunk on St. Patrick’s Day, for everyone else the big deal was rather more difficult to discern. The trouble was everyone in the cast was attempting to outdo one another as far as authentic gritty performing went, which resulted in embarrassing scenes such as a group of them seeing who could yell “Shut the fuck up!” the loudest for what seems like a full minute, as if this passed for great thespianism. Oldman and Penn especially appeared to be in competition to out-macho the other, with a dollop of teary eyed soul searching to deliver something approximating a rounded reading of their roles, but none of it rang true.
Take the dreaded examples of cigarette acting. Many actors love a prop to enable them to adorn their performances with bits of business, but the humble coffin nail was employed to absurd lengths in State of Grace as the cast underlined their characters’ lower class roots by speaking through it held between their lips, or taking a drag in contemplative manner, or gesturing with it for emphasis – you name it, if this lot could find something to do with it to decorate an already ripe piece of acting and once you noticed it was incredibly distracting. There was only one female role of any importance, as Robin Wright declined to puff away but even she was skirting close to parody with combination accent and shoulders out behaviour, as if endeavouring to keep up with the big boys.
You could just about excuse this if the story was able to carry the over the top cast, but the script had everyone going about their days as complete idiots, and only the way that they felt very sorry for themselves was supposed to make them sympathetic. Jackie in particular drinks enough alcohol to fell a horse but keeps jumping around, waving his arms about regardless as Terry fights with the affection he feels for the moron and his guilt at actually being prepared to sell him and his cohorts down the river. The overall effect if you did not buy into the world of violence as somehow noble because of their European roots was unbelievably tiresome, and there was over two hours of it to sprawl through patience-testing limits of endurance for those not enamoured of movie gangsters as it demanded you be. The point was how out of control these individuals were so that they were capable of anything, but it was the actors who were out of control as they chewed the scenery in a film Goodfellas rightly bettered in every respect. Music by Ennio Morricone.