"State of Grace" comes on like a version of Sean O'Casey's "Shadow of a Gunman" performed in a basement by the Dead End Kids.
Based loosely on actual occurrences in the small-time street-level gang culture of New York's Hell's Kitchen in the '80s, it watches as some Irish gunsels try to schmooze their way into the big time by sucking up to the Mafia. Full of corruption, greed, betrayal and, of course, violence, it's also a tale of sensitive male actors crying for the camera, hopelessly overwrought slow-mo gun battles and even a parade or two.
Sean Penn plays Terry Noonan, a mysterious returnee to the old neighborhood -- what remains of it, that is, a shrinking Irish island on the West Side, encroached by a sea of Italians from one direction and seas of blacks and Hispanics from all others. The problem with this island is that no St. Patrick has ever banished the snakes. They're everywhere.
Chief snake is Ed Harris, as Frankie Flannery, leader of the pack, who has his eyes on a better life. It's his idea to make a deal with the Italians and therefore end gang warfare, getting himself a piece of the action. The problem is his brother Jackie, played by the British actor Gary Oldman.
Oldman, most famously Sid Vicious in "Sid and Nancy," seems more like a figure from Martin Scorsese than Sean O'Casey. He's full of passionate intensity, the quintessential urban wild boy, a hairline psychopath who may go gun-crazy at any moment. His allegiance to clan and neighborhood, his defining sense of Irishness and his greasy hair all make him the villain, right? Wrong. He's the sympathetic one. Why? Because he's loyal. This movie values loyalty above all else, which is where it goes bizarrely wrong.
Penn, the key figure, feels enormous loyalty to Oldman, yet the movie never amply demonstrates why. This central connection simply throws the entire story out of whack, particularly when Penn's true identity is revealed, a pretty dim secret that out of a sense of noblesse oblige I will continue to guard, thought it's abundantly obvious if your IQ is over the vegetable level.
Thus it is that the film's central passage is a riff on the theme of guilt. Penn knits up his eyes and blubbers and slobbers over the touchy situation his "duty" has put him in. It's like watching Alfalfa do Ibsen. There's something irreducibly infantile about this actor that shackles his every move in a grown-up melodrama, makes it unconvincing. Even his instant affair with Robin Wright as Jackie and Frankie's sister seems nutty and phony and somewhat indecent.
It's only the peripheral characters who have any grit in "State of Grace." Oldman isn't so much good as fascinating because he's so off the wall, but old pro Harris and his No. 1 boy R.D. Call make a good pair of bad guys, and Joe Viterelli has a nice, restrained turn as the Mafia overlord.
The real contest in the film, however, isn't between Irish and Italians, or between Irish factions themselves; it's a showboat contest between the gnashing, pouting Penn and the flamboyant director Phil Joanou. Why do young directors all want to be Orson Welles rather than John Ford (who directed a great movie on Irish guilt and betrayal, "The Informer," against which "State of Grace" seems weightless)?
Joanou's style is all echt-Welles: flashy angles and hey-look-me-over tropes. It's as if he's lecturing on film noir. The movie really bottoms out at its climax, which is one of those completely absurdist gun battles more appropriate to an Italian western than an Irish wake with glass shattering in endless slow-motion cascades that look like transparent roses opening in the morning dew. Why do the bad guys' bullets never hit Penn in a vital place? Why do all of Penn's go to the K-5 zone of his human silhouette targets? That's Hollywood, folks. It isn't Hell's Kitchen, it's Hollywood.
'State of Grace'
Starring Sean Penn and Ed Harris.
Directed by Phil Joanou.
Released by Orion.