“You ever see a dog explode?” That’s one of the first lines of dialogue in State of Grace. I was kind of hoping that it would be an indicator of how the movie would progress --- weird, morbid dialogue is usually pretty fun, right? --- but doesn’t really come up again. Instead, this film turns out to be a story about deception and loyalty. Eh, I guess that's okay, too.
Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) hasn’t been in Hell’s Kitchen for years when he finally shows up in a bar and surprises his old best friend, Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman). Jackie is a soldier in the Kitchen’s Irish mob; he’s not too bright, but he is funny, forever drunk, and very dangerous. And he’s loyal to a fault. Jackie welcomes Terry home with no reservations, and pretty soon he talks his brother, Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris), the head of their gang, into letting Terry work for them. Being back in the Kitchen throws Terry into his old rut of trouble-making and drinking; more importantly, though, it reignites his childhood romance with Jackie’s sister, Kathleen (Robin Wright), who wants nothing to do with her brothers’ scene. While Terry and Jackie are doing strong-arm work on the streets, Frankie is busy trying to negotiate a deal that would ally his gang with the big boys, the New York mafia. Little does Frankie realize that his newest hire, Terry, is actually an undercover cop intent on bringing him down.
State of Grace is, for all intents and purposes, a showcase for the three main actors. Sean Penn loves to play characters that are wracked with guilt, and Terry Noonan’s duplicitous role is right up his alley. Penn’s performance is about what you might expect from him; he is good, but likes to overact in scenes where his character is sad or feels guilty. Ed Harris does a much better job, internalizing most of his character’s conflicts. I wish he was a more charismatic leader, but I’m not going to fault his performance on what the screenplay demanded. The real star here, though, is Gary Oldman. Nobody plays “dangerous” like Gary Oldman; his character just oozes sweat, grease, whiskey and blood. In the hands of a less capable actor, Jackie Flannery might have come off as a gunman with a dark sense of humor (which is still pretty cool), but here is charismatic and magnetic. Oldman makes Jackie into the center of every scene, whether by being playful, scary, or just drunk. This certainly isn’t Oldman at his subtlest, but he's an actor whose most memorable performances are often the most over-the-top.
|Is he about to punch you, or order some whiskey? I'll give even odds.|
Being a crime drama, there are a lot of characters that pop up, some with more substantial roles than others. Robin Wright was decent as the conflicted romantic lead, but neither her acting nor her character were anything special. John Turturro was better as Terry’s unsympathetic police contact, but this is definitely not a Coen Brothers-style supporting role; he plays his part pretty straight. R.D. Call, an actor that I was unfamiliar with, did a very good job as Frankie’s quiet but businesslike right hand man. A surprisingly skinny John C. Reilly shows up as a luckless gambler, and he was pretty good. After the past five or six years of mostly comedic roles, it can be easy to forget that Reilly was once one of the best dramatic supporting actors in the business. Burgess Meredith also had a bit part, although it wasn’t exactly a scene-stealer.
Ennio Morricone composed the score to the film, but it was far from his best work. Unlike his stellar work with Sergio Leone in the Man With No Name trilogy, this score was very much in the background of the picture. When I saw Morricone’s name in the credits, I hoped for more, but this was just your stereotypical, boring score.
I wasn’t particularly impressed by Phil Joanou’s direction, but it was decent. I didn’t like the choice he made to keep Terry’s undercover status a secret for so long (almost 50 minutes!), when it was pretty obvious from the get-go. Obviously, Joanou must have a decent touch with the actors, because he got some pretty strong performances. I just wasn’t terribly impressed with the way the story was told.
Unfortunately, the story was the weakest part of this film, and it needed all the help it could get. The last act of the script is just plain dumb, testosterone-fueled action, completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie. I don’t think Kathleen’s character added much of anything to the overall story, and I would have preferred Terry’s friendship with Jackie be the focus. Splitting Terry’s devotion between the two characters made his inevitable betrayal less interesting, because there was always the slim chance that Kathleen might forgive him for arresting her brothers. Oh, and the whole waiting-an-hour-to-reveal-Terry-is-a-cop thing? Completely unnecessary. It was implied in the very first scene and was beyond obvious. Really, the only surprises this movie has are what Frankie is willing to do to clinch his deal with the mafia. Unfortunately, the focus of the story is on Terry.
State of Grace isn’t a bad movie, but it definitely underachieves. With the talented actors here, most directors would be able to make a classic. Instead, what we have is a less complicated version of The Departed. Gary Oldman’s performance, though, is certainly worth watching. It’s just too bad it was spent on an otherwise mediocre movie.