CRIMEWATCH: State of Grace
Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) has been absent from his old neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, NYC for many years. While he was away a few things changed…such as him becoming a police officer in Boston. When he’s picked for a special undercover assignment infiltrating the Irish mob in New York City he accepts but is nervous about it for several obvious reasons. His only contact is Nick (John Turturro) a fellow officer who tries to convince him he can pull the job off if he just sticks with it. To gain trust with the gang, Terry has to establish the fact he is an actual criminal, so he is involved in a staged drug exchange gone bad where he shoots the two undercover cops with blanks.
Terry shows up at a local Irish Hell’s Kitchen bar where he finds his childhood best friend Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman) who upon seeing him after so many years, is bursting with surprise and happiness. Jackie is a greasy, long haired wild child who works for his older brother Frankie (Ed Harris) the icy cold crime boss in the Kitchen. Their main business is extortion and bullying of the local gamblers among other things. After Terry and Jackie catch up a bit, Terry is reintroduced to his childhood sweetheart Kate (Robin Wright) who happens to be Jackie’s younger sister. It’s clear from their reactions to one another the two have an unfinished romance. While Jackie is basically Frankie’s servant, Kate has removed herself from both her brothers’ influence by living uptown but it’s obvious they still have a grip on her. One of Terry’s other old friends is Stevie (John C. Reilly) a very likable but wreckless kid who has troubles stemming from bets he owes to the more powerful Italian mobsters in the city. This screwup has caused a big problem for Frankie who has plans to start working for them.
After meeting with Frankie and showing he’s on the level, Terry joins the gang and they do different crimes in the neighborhood like forcing bars to buy their liquor and shaking down locals for outstanding debts. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, Jackie and Terry pour gasoline inside a building being renovated by a neighborhood outsider, then light it on fire and race to the door through the hellish flames. While Terry and Jackie take care of business, behind the scenes Frankie is getting closer to the Italian mobsters, but his own greed begins to affect those who trust him and when he starts taking precautions by setting up hits and killing his own inner circle the simmering pot in the Kitchen begins to boil over.
Terry tries to keep things strictly business on the surface but when he rekindles his relationship with Kate things only become more complicated as he sinks deeper into the living outside the law. As the bottles of booze get emptied and more bodies begin dropping around him, Terry becomes wracked with guilt and what he first saw as being something he could do from a distance becomes much more personal.
Sean Penn delivers an exquisite performance as the conflicted Terry. His genius is in how he shows him to be both courageous in his purpose but confused about what he’s doing. The breakout star of the film is Gary Oldman who is British but pulled off a exceptional specific Hell’s Kitchen accent. His role as Jackie is some of his most exciting, unbridled acting on the big screen. Every scene he’s in lights up because of either his humor or violent, loose cannon demeanor. Ed Harris’ Frankie is easily one of his most ruthless film characters, his sociopathic, angry persona and snake like charm is chilling to watch.
State of Grace was inspired by the real life Irish Westies gang that operated in Hell’s Kitchen during the 1970s and 80s. Harris’ Frankie was patterned after the mob boss Jimmy Coonan while Gary Oldman’s Jackie was based on his best friend, a psychotic gangster Mickey Featherstone. Using these people as a basis for his story, Director Phil Joanou established a highly realistic cinematic vision of criminal life accented by themes of religion and the old vs. the new. It also features thrilling action scenes (including a visceral Peckinpah styled shootout) but overall it’s the outstanding cast who give it authenticity and make it come alive.