By Christopher Kennedy
“I feel like the last Irishman in the Kitchen,” laments Jackie Flannery, Gary Oldman’s character in “State Of Grace (1990),” an overlooked crime drama about Irish mobsters on the west side of Manhattan. The film, loosely based on the book “Westies,” by T.J. English, follows Sean Penn as Terry Noonan, a former neighborhood tough kid-turned Boston police officer who returns to Hell’s Kitchen after many years to go undercover for the NYPD in order to infiltrate a gang consisting of his old friends. Noonan soon regrets ever taking on the assignment, as his feelings for best friend Jackie and former flame Kate (played brilliantly by Robin Wright Penn) make him question both his responsibilities and renewed loyalties.
The gang’s leader, Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris) is in the midst of brokering a deal with the Italian mob so he can “retire,” but reluctantly agrees to take Terry into the fold. Frankie’s character is cold, mechanized, and completely amoral. His matter-of-fact approach to discarding the gang’s debt-ridden but affable member Stevie McGuire (John C. Reilly) is chilling, and it soon becomes clear that Frankie takes his orders from Italian mobster Borelli (played by the late Joe Viterelli).
The film includes a haunting musical score and a cast of superb actors, including John Turturro as Terry’s supervising officer, R.D. Call as Frankie’s right-hand man, Pat Nicholson, and a memorable cameo by the late Burgess Meredith. But it is Gary Oldman as Frankie who steals scene after scene with his bizarre sense of humor, twisted logic and fierce ethnic pride.
“State of Grace” was released in the same year as Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-winning mob picture, “GoodFellas,” which may explain why it didn’t received the attention it deserves. Nonetheless, the film is a cinematic treat, with excellent dialogue, crisp direction, and a climactic scene juxtaposed against the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade that is as gripping in its intensity as it is in its beauty.