State of Grace (1990) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I was really surprised to see that there was a movie as good as this that I had never heard of.

You see, I lived in Europe from 1990 to 1993. While some American movies make it over there, possibly even concurrently with their run in the States, not every movie makes the migration. There was no reason for European distributors to take a chance on this New York Irish gangster film. It didn't even interest anyone in the United States (a whopping two million box office).

So I had never heard of the film before today, and it was a pleasant surprise.

It's about a cop who goes back to his old neighborhood under cover, with the intent of busting the racketeers there, who basically consist of all of his oldest and closest friends. The cast includes Sean Penn, John Turturro, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, and Robin Wright, with lots of great character actors in supporting roles as well.


Robin Wright showed her breasts in a dark sex scene, then showed them from the side in a lit dressing scene.

I don't mean to oversell it.

It's good, but the film doesn't cover any new ground. In fact, it uses the official American Gangster Movie Plot which seemed to form the basis for every crime film made in America in the 1930s. Tough Irish kids grow up together in Hell's Kitchen. One kid grows up to be a notorious gangster (Jimmy Cagney or John Garfield), his best friend grows up to be a priest or an honest cop (Spencer Tracy or Pat O'Brien). Eventually their paths must cross, and the priest or cop must decide whether to enforce the law or remain loyal to his friend. Almost invariably, one of the friends is in love with the other's sister (Anne Sheridan), who gets caught between them. Or maybe the gangster is now involved with the girl who used to date the priest in his pre-padre days. Various members of their old neighborhood gang will also get caught in the struggle, like the lovable but dumb guy (Huntz Hall) who doesn't understand what's going on.

  • For a comparison, see the plot summary of 1938's Angels With Dirty Faces. That's the same ground State of Grace treads upon. Gary Oldman and Ed Harris filled in for Cagney and Bogart as the street criminal and the slick criminal. Sean Penn filled in for Pat O'Brien in the "cop or priest" role. Robin Wright took the Anne Sheridan role, and John C. Reilly took over brilliantly for Huntz Hall as the doofy-lookin' guy. If they ever do a Huntz Hall biopic, Reilly is my choice for the role.

  • 1934's Manhattan Melodrama played the same tune with Clark Gable as the gangster and William Powell as his childhood pal, the crusading D.A.

  • 1937's Dead End told the same story with Joel McCrea as the model citizen and Humphrey Bogart as his childhood pal, the tough Baby Face Martin.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic

State of Grace doesn't add much very new except color photography, the modernization of the crimes (drugs) and threats (Haitians trying to muscle in), and more explicit modern levels of sex and violence than you would have seen in the days of the Hays Code.

But a movie doesn't have to possess earth-shattering novelty to be good. This film has the usual story, but it's done very well, and acted exceptionally well, so it was a pleasant surprise.

The Critics Vote

  • Roger Ebert 3/4.

The People Vote ...

  • It was a complete flop at the box office. Two million dollars total.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. Good gangster flick. It is predictable and familiar, but very well executed and performed.

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