State of Grace Review
King of Hell’s Kitchen
Released in the same year as Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece, Goodfellas, and Abel Ferrara’s striking King of New York, the underrated gem State of Grace largely went overlooked.Whilst anyone familiar with either of those heavyweights – and indeed the genre in general – will probably find it following a well-trodden path of violent gang turf rivalry, in-fighting and betrayal, Phil Joanou’s sophomore directorial feature still has a hell of a lot going for it, making the most of its excellent composite parts and finding originality in individual elements even if not in the whole. Whilst Joanou probably should be given some credit for turning out such a strong second feature (his background was U2 music videos), he got pretty lucky with the ingredients for the mix.Firstly, U2 were unavailable to do the soundtrack and instead magician Ennio Morricone stepped in to deliver a haunting score that provides a wonderful backbone for the entire production. Then he got lucky with his cinematographer, getting Jordan Cronenweth – the guy who lensed Blade Runner no less – to capture some stunning shots. As a result, the look and sound of the piece is consistently a cut above, a good way towards the makings of a masterpiece. And whilst it may not quite amount to the sum of its impressive parts, there's still plenty to marvel at in this frequently overlooked gem.
Joanou also got really lucky on casting, with Bill Pullman originally cast in the role that would, thankfully, eventually go to Ed Harris, who brings steely cold resolve to his part as the eldest brother in an Irish crime family on the cusp or making a landmark deal with the neighbouring Italian mob bosses. Gary Oldman generally – and quite rightly – gets all the acting praise, however, for his energetic performance as the wild younger brother who doesn’t see why their family can’t still rule Hell’s Kitchen with or without any Italian influence. It’s one of Oldman’s best early era performances. Even Sean Penn, the childhood friend returning to take his place amidst the chaos, is on strong form, bringing a surprising amount of melancholy to the role, and largely leaving the manic craziness to Oldman.
It’s actually a cast to die for, with the likes of John Turturro, Robin Wright (who was afterwards, for a while, Robin Wright Penn), John C. Reilly, Burgess Meredith, character actor R. D. Call (who was friends with the Penn family, and starred in quite a few films with Sean Penn) and the late, great go-to mob boss Joe Viterelli (most recently in the Analyze This films), all providing solid support.
Whilst not a masterpiece, State of Grace is still an underrated gem.
Despite all of this, State of Grace never quite amounts to the sum of its parts, although it comes very close, riding the cusp of being almost as great as Goodfellas or as fresh as King of New York, but falling short of a masterpiece, instead providing some exceptional scenes – a tense slo-mo standoff and a superb slo-mo finale remain the most memorable – and some great performances, with that great score and striking cinematography supporting you through the rest. It’s rightly gone on to become something of a cult classic and is well worth checking out.
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