After 12 years absence, Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) returns to New York's Hell's Kitchen sometime in the '70s to find that his old stomping ground, a one-time cesspit of sleaze bars and marauding gangs, has been invaded by yuppies hell-bent on making the place a better place to live. He meets up with his Irish-American buddies from the good-old-bad-old days: career crook Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris) and his psychotic brother Jackie (Gary Oldman) who are determined to keep the mean streets mean and he falls in love again with childhood sweetheart, Kathleen (Robin Wright). But with the cops closing in, no-one is safe and the cops are closer than the gangsters think.
Gary Oldman and Sean Penn act their socks off as best friends from the mean streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in State of Grace, a superior gangland drama that deals imaginatively with the familiar themes of family, friendship and loyalty.
This stylish movie directed by Phil Joanou has much in common with two Martin Scorsese classics: GoodFellas, which was released the same year (1990) and Mean Streets. Odd, therefore, that Joanou, who was 28 when he made this film, has directed so little since then.
Oldman is simply mesmerizing as Jackie Flannery, the toughest and most dangerous and unstable member of an Irish-American gang. His mind addled by booze and drugs, Jackie is a mad man and a monster. Penn is Terry Noonan, his childhood friend who re-appears after an absence of a dozen years spent, he says obliquely, in places like Texas and Oklahoma. The screenplay by Dennis McIntyre drops a few early clues that Terry is not what he seems. Noonan joins the gang, headed by Jackie’s older brother, Frankie (a malevolent Ed Harris), who, incongruously, lives in the suburbs with his wife and kids. Soon, Terry rekindles his romance with the Flannerys’ sister Kate (Robin Wright), who has tried to distance herself from her brothers, literally and figuratively, by living and working uptown.
The vicious murder of a friend of Jackie’s and Terry’s sets off a string of explosive events which prove to be ultimate tests of loyalty between brothers, friends and lovers. Wild-eyed and sporting lank, greasy hair, Oldman dominates the screen as a truly terrifying character, while Penn effectively portrays a man battling with diametrically-opposed emotions.
Among the memorable cameos, John C. Reilly is the hapless victim referred to above, John Turturro plays a character whose identity I won’t reveal for spoiler reasons, and Burgess Meredith is a frail old man with a long memory. The meagre extras consist of four scenes and the theatrical trailer.