New York’s Hell’s Kitchen has served as the scene for gangland movies since the days of the Dead End Kids. But recent urban renewal has broken up most of the old gangs and increased the viciousness of those that remain. An Irish wild bunch called the Westies has even attempted an alliance with the Mafia to consolidate its power. Using the gentrified Hell’s Kitchen as a backdrop, screenwriter Dennis McIntyre and director Phil Joanou have fashioned a thundering, vividly acted film about the conflicts in one Irish crime family.
In a finely shaded performance, Ed Harris plays Frankie Flannery, the ambitious gang leader trying to link up with the Mafia. His crazed brother Jackie, acted to the hilt and beyond by Gary Oldman, wants to stay rooted in the old days and ways. Their independent sister Kathleen (Robin Wright, in a striking switch from her limpid title role in The Princess Bride) yearns to separate herself from the criminal life. Enter Terry Noonan, sharply played by Sean Penn, a former pal of the brothers’ and once a lover of Kathleen’s. Terry’s been away for years; now he’s back as an undercover cop.
State of Grace is a bruising film about divided loyalties. McIntyre — a playwright (Modigliani, National Anthems) who died shortly after making his screenwriting debut with this film — brings precision and heat to a familiar genre. When the writing goes flabby, as in scenes when Terry philosophizes about looking his fears in the eye, it could be due to the uncredited contribution of David Rabe, whose overwrought script for Casualties of War helped drain that film of its visceral potency. Joanou (Three O’Clock High, U2 Rattle and Hum) keeps the tension taut, and Jordan Cronenweth’s artful camerawork gives the underworld an evil gleam. But the movie is marred by overkill, especially in the brutal and bloated allegorical ending, which feels lifted, clumsily, from The Godfather. State of Grace is most powerful and gripping when it stays true to the emotions of its characters.