State of Grace


If you can find it, take a look at State of Grace, the 1990 film by director Phil Joanau. This cult classic features acting powerhouses such as Sean Penn, Gary Oldham, Ed Harris, Robin Wright, and John C. Reilly. Even Burgess Meredith has a small but masterful part. The film is inspired by “The Westies” Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, and takes place in the 1980’s.

Penn plays Terry Noonan, a guy from Hell’s Kitchen who, unbeknownst to everyone in the neighborhood, has become a cop. He has been sent in undercover to infiltrate the Westies crew — guys he grew up with. Oldman plays the role of Jackie Flannery, the violent, degenerate, muscle of the crew (likely based on the notorious Mickey Featherstone). O’Neil is the mob boss (real-life counterpart: Jimmy Coonan), and Wright, the love interest.

The film has some real New York grit and is a reminder of the way the city was, pre-Giuliani. What makes it stand out are the performances, the real west side background, great soundtrack, and a score by Ennio Morricone (A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West).

The film hinges on Noonan’s inner conflict between loyalty to his old friends and his duty to the badge. A lot of guilt, a lot of fighting, and a lot of drinking. If you like cop and mob movies and remember Time Square before the Disney Store, you’ll love this film.

The Sean Penn character is a construct – the take-down of the Westies wasn’t due to an undercover (above is the definitive book on the topic, by TJ English, who I believe still lives in the neighborhood). But the film gets the rest correct (several of The Ops Desk team have lived and worked in Hell’s Kitchen – some of the Westies old-timers were still around). Even the meeting between Jimmy Coonan and the Gambino family leadership (real life counterpart: Paul Castellano) happened pretty much the way the film portrays it.

The main issue is locating a copy. I am not sure what nefarious forces are at work to keep this movie hidden, but they are doing a good job. It is not on any streaming service that I can find and it never seems to be on TV. My copy is the old school DVD. But you can order it on Amazon for only $8.13 with a two-day turnaround.

It is highly worth it. An immersive snapshot of an era and a criminal phenomenon, long gone.

Christopher Flanagan


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