Some movies are so engaging that you simply forget about everything else that’s going on in your life. Only after 45 minutes did I notice that I was watching this movie. It captured my attention so firmly that I didn’t think about anything else. State of Grace is one of the most underrated nineties neo-noir thrillers and undercover cop movies. It’s just so fucking juicy that I cannot recommend it enough, especially to the fans of the genre. With each scene, you get more and more invested in the story and the characters. There’s no fluff, melodrama, or boring exchanges, State of Grace is pure fucking muscle.
And the cast, don’t get me started on the cast. Young Sean Penn and Gary Oldman were playing off each other giving incredible performances. Gary especially was a force of nature here playing a realistic unhinged criminal. You know the type I’m talking about, that guy that has trouble written all over him. Who lives fast and violently reacts to anything he comes into contact with. He would go on to reprise this role in another nineties classic, Leon. And I also have to mention Romeo is Bleeding just to top off the Gary Oldman nineties powerhouse performances list.
The way he says “Fuck it” here was so fucking sublime that keeps popping up in my head from time to time. This one short fucking sentence. Penn plays an undercover cop struggling to come to terms with his mission. A troubled man split right down the middle and disillusioned about the good fight. We also shouldn’t forget about dependable Ed Harris, surprisingly dashing Robin Wright, and loveable John C. Reilly. The story takes place on the tough streets of New York. Hell’s Kitchen to be more precise.
A place where the mob controls everything and if you don’t want to play by their rules, you will probably end up dead. A place where life is cheap, guys hard, and money easy. Abel Ferrara’s movies like Bad Lieutenant, Fear City, and King of New York offer a similarly gritty and sleazy setting. So, despite the somewhat deceptive title State of Grace, this is an authentic and above all realistic thriller. I’ve watched it a couple of times over the years and each time it fucking blew me away.
Meet Terry Noonan, a young cop who just accepted a dangerous assignment. He’s to go back to his old neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen and reconnect with his old friends who are now all part of a mob. Irish mob who’s now working with the Italians to establish total control of that part of New York. His main connection is Jackie, a loose cannon whose brother is now the head honcho making huge moves. However, it will soon become apparent that the assignment is going to get a lot messier than Terry initially thought.
I want to hang on to that one word messy, for just a brief moment. Mostly because this is how shit goes down in real life. Things are morally ambiguous, messy, and just plain old nasty. In this criminal underworld, you’re forced to make choices between bad and worse options. All the while trying to stay alive. State of Grace does an incredible job of keeping things as realistic as possible. Moreover, a lot of the scenes actually happened in real life. Scriptwriter Dennis McIntyre drew inspiration from mobster testimonies detailing these intense situations.
Unlike so many other movies about crime and mafia, State of Grace doesn’t romanticize either the characters or the situations. However, you could argue that the main story is a bit stereotypical. I don’t want to go into details but I think you’ll see what I mean when you watch the movie. And yet you’ll hardly notice this because of all the other elements that were fucking top-notch. Just like in another cool nineties undercover cop movie, Deep Cover. Finally, State of Grace has one hell of an ending worthy of everything that came before it.
Director: Phil Joanou
Writer: Dennis McIntyre
Cast: Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright, John C. Reilly, Joe Viterelli, John Turturro
Fun Facts: The original cut of the movie was over three hours long. This was done to increase the pacing but also to keep the running time more palatable for the average viewer. A lot of the scenes that were cut include Jackie and Frankie murdering other Irish mobsters together.