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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Grace': The Gang That Couldn't Fit In

September 14, 1990|SHEILA BENSON | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Director Phil Joanou's wildly indulgent and artily self-conscious gangster melodrama, "State of Grace" opens with a St. Patrick's Day parade in grainy slo-mo. It's not only a ringer for Ivan Passer's opening scene in "Cutter's Way"--a movie that worked--but the way each moment is held suggests cinematic overkill and nothing that follows contradicts that impression.

"State of Grace" (citywide) is played against an interesting background: the Irish-American gang known as the Westies whose turf was New York's reeking Hell's Kitchen. Or what used to reek and used to be called Hell's Kitchen until gentrification hit, sometime in the late '70s.

After that it was called Clinton, and as one local says mournfully, "The neighborhood's disappeared in a tide of yuppies and dog (droppings)." Left beached by that tide were its Irish gangsters, a singularly cold-blooded collection of murderers, even by the pathologic standards of street gangs. Bitter and alienated, they finally tried to ally themselves with the Italian Mafia, and on this hangs part of "State of Grace's" plot.

Frankie Flanner (Ed Harris) now heads the Westies from the safe environs of upscale New Jersey, while his hotblooded and decidedly unstable younger brother Jackie (Gary Oldman) remains behind, taunting the Mafioso at every turn. The Flanners' younger sister, Kathleen (Robin Wright), has turned her back on their violence, to live uptown and work at a Park Avenue hotel.

Taking Westie Terry Noonan out of that background for a dozen years, then dropping him back among his floundering gang members is a not-bad idea; having Sean Penn play him is an even better one. As the troubled Terry, whose last 12 years have been in a very different setting, Penn has one of the most complete and complex characters since his father-son partnership with Christopher Walken in "At Close Range," and he is marvelous. While hanging out with Jackie, Terry also rebuilds his passionate relationship with Kathleen--straining his loyalties even further.

"State of Grace" has a poetic script by the late playwright Dennis McIntyre, who has an ear for the lingo ("I'm an old man and I'm eatin' stewed tomatoes out of a can," pensioner Burgess Meredith says, about his reduced circumstances.) McIntyre also has a taste for mixing grim hilarity with sudden mayhem. His view of these lethal, crumbling Irishmen is that they are a hopeless lot: on their way to back up Frankie as he parlays with a Mafia chieftain, the whole, sorry gang fits in the back of a panel truck and once loaded, no one has a clue how to get to heavily Italian Mott Street.

Unfortunately, what director Joanou makes of all these promising elements is thudding pretentiousness. His first movie, "Three O'Clock High," should have been a warning--this was a young director playing with a million gimmicky ideas, all of them awful. His second film, the documentary portrait "U2: Rattle and Hum," for which "State of Grace's" lyric cinematographer, Jordan Cronenweth, was also a cameraman, was a very different matter, but Joanou had that charismatic band to work with. Now he is back dealing with actors and every indulgence, including a two hour and 14 minute running time, is on display.

Gary Oldman, who needs no encouragement, has been allowed to start his performance somewhere in the stratosphere and spiral upward from there. Ed Harris, as the world's most muddled gang leader, is uncharacteristically muted and poor, lovely Robin Wright is reduced to sitting, back lit, in her apartment, waiting for some new disaster to burst through her door. Invariably, it does.

When Joanou stages his final, hyperviolent shoot-out, his gunmen rush at each other, one firing from the left side of the screen, one from the right, again and again. So that we don't forget the Irishness of it all, Joanou cuts in the St. Patrick's Day paraders too, until we worry that one of them, 40 blocks away uptown, is going to drop dead, caught in the movie's crossfire.

'STATE OF GRACE'

An Orion Pictures release of a Cinehaus production. Producers Ned Dowd, Randy Ostrow & Ron Rotholz. Director Phil Joanou. Screenplay Dennis McIntyre. Camera Jordan Cronenweth. Editor Claire Simpson. Music Ennio Morricone. Sound Peter A. Itardi. Production design Patrizia von Brandenstein, Doug Kraner. Costumes Aude Bronson-Howard. With Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright, John Turturro, John C. Reilly, R. D. Call, Joe Viterelli, Burgess Meredith.

Running time: 2 hour, 14 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (brief nudity, extreme profanity and violence)

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