Whether you agree with me or not, the 1990’s were an amazing decade of titanic hit and sinking duds at the movies. (I know, the puns bad.) For me, the coolest, if not the best film, of the nineties was arguably Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). The worst? Surely it has to be Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (1995) or Batman and Robin (1997) starring George Clooney. But somewhere in between are the forgotten gems that we all wound up forgetting. Yes, these are the lost or underrated films I often watch on my own that none of my friends ever give a second thought to. There are, of course, too many to mention, and my forthcoming series is only a snapshot of some of those films that sorely deserve some sort of recognition. That said, my approach to this article is simple. I will take one film from every year of the nineties that I truly appreciate (for whatever reason) and believe merits mention. Without further ado, State of Grace (1990) is my first film in my mixed bag of underrated movies of the 1990’s.
State of Grace (1990)
I read an article interview, I think with Gary Oldman, about the film State of Grace, way back in 1990 that grabbed my attention. Unfortunately, I forget which publication it was in, but it went on to describe how Gary Oldman and Sean Penn both agreed to make the picture after a lively telephone conversation. The article described at one point how Oldman teased Penn about Madonna during the early days of production on State Of Grace. Oldman jokingly burst into a rendition of “Like A Virgin” which was without question far from in good taste. For those who do not remember, Penn at the time had recently divorced from Madonna, in what was a very difficult period for the two of them. In 1989, Penn was charged with battery, but for some strange reason Madonna dropped the complaints and instead filed for divorce. Anyway, Penn upon witnessing Oldman’s impromptu performance, apparently took it quite well.
This amazing story alone was enough for me to want to see how the chemistry between the two of them played out on screen. I was already a fan of Sean Penn’s acting, seeing a number of his pictures, including Casualty of War (1989) with Michael J. Fox, but I was more interested in seeing who was this remarkable Englishman Gary Oldman, the man who dared to mock Sean Penn!
State of Grace is definitely a lost classic! It didn’t initially make much of an impact on release, it was unfortunately overshadowed by the critically acclaimed Goodfellas (1990), which was released almost at the same time. Nonetheless, it stands as one of my favourite films starring both Sean Penn and Gary Oldman, along side Ed Harris, Robin Wright and John C. Reilly.
The film opens with the scene of Sean Penn against the Manhattan skyline with the Twin Towers (in view) and we get a nagging suspicion, aided by Ennio Morricone opening moody score, that something very underhanded is about to happen. Interestingly, New York, or more specifically Hell’s Kitchen, as a gritty dirty place is cleverly directed by Phil Joanou.
In short, the film is about Terry Noonan (Penn), an undercover cop who infiltrates an Irish crime family losing its control over Hell’s Kitchen. Noonan’s return to his old neighbour, after a 10-year absence, and to the excitement of his former best friend (Oldman) now a henchman, sets in motion a dangerous tale of betrayal, redemption and guilt.
I think its fair to say, an appraisal of the film over the years, has lifted it status as a crime drama classic. My own personal glowing admiration for State of Grace is a little twisted, given the violent nature of the film, especially the climatic showdown during a crowded St. Patrick’s Day Parade. But having said that, its unexpected ending, gives the film some much needed credibility that any other film might have been tempted to insert a happier ending.
The standout performance of the film, and it doesn’t come as a surprise, is made by Gary Oldman as Jackie Flannery, a hot-headed gangster who believes his often ugly criminal behaviour is justified, to serve and protect his neighbourhood and way of life. Having said that you almost feel sorry for Jackie and his misplaced trust in his scheming crime boss older brother’s (played by Ed Harris) motives for the family business.
But we cannot forget and should give credit to Penn for his almost polar opposite performance to Oldman, as the ex-con turned cop, who is truly torn between his loyalty towards Jackie and his own sense of place in this world. A great deal of what happens to Noonan is also played out as he is drawn back to his former lover (played by Robin Wright), which only adds to his confusion about what is right and wrong.
State of Grace may never rise to the accolades of films like Goodfellas (1990), The Usual Suspect (1995), Gangs of New York (2002) or The Departed (2006), but its strong accomplished performances, in particularly from Gary Oldman and its haunting musical score, from one of cinema’s great composers Ennio Morricone, are reason enough for me to believe it might one day truly endure as a genre classic.
Photo credit: The header movie still image from the film State of Grace (1990) is courtesy of Orion Pictures. I make use of the images under the rational of fair use. It enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone by placing the key characters of the film, played by actors Oldman, Penn and Wright into the frame. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip embedded.