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REVIEW — State of Grace (1990)

August 20, 2015

FilmJuice have my review of Phil Joanou’s State of Grace, which is due to be re-released as part of a weird actor-focused box set alongside Colors. The film’s wikipedia entry describes it as a “neo-noir crime film” but I find it more helpful to think of the film as a bloated rock opera set amidst the gangs of New York. I use that phrase deliberately as State of Grace is a film about the last surviving remnants of the criminal underworld described by Scorsese in the film Gangs of New York. State of Grace is about a gang of working-class Irish-Americans who are struggling to hold onto territory that is in the process of being gentrified. Trapped between the legal connections of developers and the muscle of the Italian families, the once-plentiful Irish-American criminal fraternity has shrunk down to a single gang of drunks, cowards and nostalgic fuck-ups. As a snapshot of a particular point in the history of NYC, the film is really fascinating as many of the empty buildings the gang hang-out in are now home to high-end designer boutiques and luxury apartments. Basically… if you want to know what Hell’s Kitchen looked like before a wave of gentrification turned it into ‘Midtown West’ then this is the film for you.  Just don’t watch it for the story… or the acting.

The film’s plot is sort of similar to that of Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco in that it involves a cop infiltrating a criminal gang only to wind up identifying with the gang so much that he struggles to do his job. Only, the cop’s job is a lot harder here as the gang he is ordered to infiltrate is mostly composed of his childhood friends. The names attached to this project were always first class: Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Ed Harris and Robin Wright. The problem is that the director seems to have provided his actors almost no direction resulting in a film that is completely overwhelmed and unbalanced by one of the worst performances of Gary Oldman’s career:

The film’s primary problem is that Gary Oldman starts off shouting and flailing only to become increasingly hysterical as the film progresses. Come the final act, he is literally stamping his feet and rolling around on the ground like an over-tired toddler. Oldman’s performance is so ludicrously over the top that it completely destabilises the rest of the film: Ed Harris’ muted and conflicted performance as the gang-leader comes across as flat while Robin Wright undermines an otherwise delicate job with one scene in which she suddenly abandons all of her character’s emotional toughness in order to rend her clothes and tear at her hair. Penn is arguably the best thing in this film as his double-dealing character gives him an excuse to ‘act crazy’ around Jackie and assume a more muted demeanour when dealing with Frankie, Kathleen or his police handler. Had Joanou decided to have a quiet word with Oldman then the film might easily have been salvaged but rather than reining his actors in, the director lavishes attention on them allowing even minor scenes to balloon into absurd melodramatic arias that rapidly overstay their welcome.

Three things occurred to me after writing this review:

Firstly, the only thing I really knew about Hell’s Kitchen before watching this film is that it’s home to the Marvel comics character Daredevil. Given that Hell’s Kitchen has now been gentrified and filled with up-scale apartments, does Daredevil still protect that neighbourhood and if so, doesn’t that change the dynamic of the comic? The masked protector of a shit-hole might have a bit of nobility but a lawyer who spends his evenings beating up door-to-door duster salesmen? Sounds even worse than Batman!

Secondly, it occurs to me that Gary Oldman’s Jackie may well have been the inspiration for the character of Ziggy Sabotka as played by James Ransone in season two of The Wire: They’re both remnants of a working-class culture that is about to disappear, they’re both temperamentally unsuited to their chosen life of crime and they’re both annoying histrionic tits who stick out like sore thumbs in an otherwise realistic and well-drawn setting.

Thirdly, Hollywood doesn’t really make these sort of mid-budget dramas any more and it occurred to me to look into how much money the film actually made upon first release.  Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t much and Roger Ebert (who thought more of the film and Oldman’s performance than I did) explains why:

There’s another problem. This movie, intended as a gritty slice-of-life about gangsters in New York City, is being released at about the same time as Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” which deals with the same subject and is a film so strong and graceful that few others can stand comparison to it.

Yeah… tough luck that.

 

7 Comments
  1. Brendan permalink
    August 20, 2015 7:07 pm

    What’s kind of funny is that the portrayal of the Irish-American mafia as a “gang of drunks, cowards and nostalgic fuck-ups” is historically accurate. They were basically forced out of the rackets in Atlantic City in 1929; a few pockets held out, but by ’90, Boston was the only place an Irish-American gangster could be taken seriously. So maybe the melodrama is accurate: these are people too stupid to have opened an ugly little pub in Yonkers.

    Side note I’m ashamed of knowing: The Hell’s Kitchen of “Daredevil” has been ungentrified due to the massive damage done to Manhattan in the first Avengers movie. This is, perhaps, the only part of that movie that plays to my fantasies…

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  2. August 20, 2015 7:14 pm

    I dunno man… I still find it difficult to believe that the Irish mob would tolerate a guy rolling around on the floor like a toddler :-) The film talks about ‘craziness’ as the chosen male aesthetic of that milieu so I can buy nuts, I can buy passionate but people running around with their arms flailing? It’s just… SILLY!

    How about before the Avengers?

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  3. Brendan permalink
    August 20, 2015 8:19 pm

    Ha! Yeah, haven’t seen the movie in a while, didn’t remember it was so silly.

    “Daredevil” is an origin story, drawn heavily from The Man Without Fear, so Murdock doesn’t start pummeling hoods to death until after the Loki or whoever destroyed midtown. Wait, are you just baiting me to see how much I know about the MCU? I just like alternate Manhattans that are cheaper, is all.

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  4. August 20, 2015 8:29 pm

    No baiting… legitimately curious for much the same reason as you :-) I remember Hell’s kitchen being a shithole in the film.

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  5. Brendan permalink
    August 21, 2015 2:42 pm

    Oh, in that case I have no idea. That’s the party line of Daredevil’s showrunners, but, yeah, if it was a shithole in the film, that doesn’t make any sense, since in real life it’s been a millionaire brofest for a solid decade.

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  6. September 3, 2015 10:21 am

    But she and Terry used to be in love, and so of course Fate is going to have a hand in what happens next. Since a great deal of what happens in “State of Grace” depends on an important secret that it not revealed until the second half of the movie, I will have to tread gingerly around some of the details.

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  7. September 3, 2015 10:57 am

    Doesn’t explain the terrible acting though! :-)

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