As far as I know, there have been no recent sightings of James Dean — but, like Elvis Presley, he has never really gone away. Neither has the young Marlon Brando. These legendary performers now haunt an entire generation of gifted young actors. So does Robert De Niro (or, at least, the De Niro of the ’70s), who took the Dean-Brando mystique one step further: He didn’t just brood — he exploded.
Inspired by this triumvirate of psychodramatic greatness, performers like Sean Penn and Britain’s Gary Oldman now view acting as a down-and-dirty quest. They don’t just want to play characters. They want to spill their guts on screen, assaulting us with how raw and scruffy and magnetic they can be. Is it any coincidence that the best performances these two actors have given — Penn in Bad Boys, Oldman in Sid and Nancy — came early in their careers, before they were fully aware of themselves as stars? Penn and Oldman remain audacious talents, but when the cameras roll, you can almost feel them watching themselves with a kind of Method-acting third eye. They’re really performing for the bedroom mirror of their dreams.
State of Grace is a contemporary gangland drama that might have been scripted in narcissistic-actor heaven: It’s full of big, showy scenes in which the performers get to curse and fight and stumble through bars in a state of glamorous dishevelment. The movie has been shot with a pleasingly overripe visual flair, and on its own terms it’s fairly entertaining. Yet it isn’t about anything so much as its own ”explosiveness.”
Set in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and based on the activities of a notoriously violent Irish-American street gang known as the Westies, State of Grace wants to be a full-bodied portrait of lower-level mob hoods. It’s about the sort of desperately charged-up, live-for-the-moment characters Martin Scorsese captured definitively in Mean Streets — and the plot, in fact, is a slavish copy of Scorsese’s. It centers on another soul-searching Catholic hero, Terry Noonan (Penn), who is torn between the tribal camaraderie of gang life — the world he knows best — and his inchoate desire to become a moral man.
The other characters include Terry’s childhood pal Jackie Flannery (Oldman), a happy-go-lucky psychotic whose loose-cannon antics get everyone in trouble; the gang’s cold-blooded head honcho (and Jackie’s older brother), Frankie (Ed Harris), who’s trying to forge an alliance with the Mafia; and Terry’s girlfriend (Robin Wright), a budding yuppie who despises the violence of gang life but is tied to it by blood (she’s Frankie and Jackie’s younger sister).
The director, 28-year-old Phil Joanou, made the U2 concert film Rattle and Hum, and his work here is better than you’d expect from a graduate of the rock-video school. Joanou keeps the action hot-tempered and pulsing. There’s a rouser of a suspense scene in which the gang counts down the clock before making an attempted hit, and the movie has a vibrant urban-night-world atmosphere. Joanou shows signs of becoming a real director. But they’re still only signs. In State of Grace, he works so hard to make every moment powerful that the film seems rooted less in real life than in other movies. What’s more, Joanou fails to bring out the Irishness of the milieu. Except for the brands of whiskey they drink, the characters might as well have been Italian street hoods, or Jewish, or WASP.
Oldman, sporting long greasy hair and several days’ stubble, seems to have caught the Mickey Rourke how-low-can-you-go bug, His Jackie is a rancorous, boozing-and-brawling scuzzball who lopes around the neighborhood like a high-strung orangutan; I didn’t really believe this performance, but I did enjoy it. And Penn makes Terry’s anger and guilt seem like raw wounds — though there are too many scenes in which his character is undermined by a preening lack of vulnerability. By now, Penn has spent so much time playing the self-righteous street fighter off camera that his on-screen performances seem almost superfluous. He needs to remember that acting doesn’t necessarily mean being the coolest guy in the room. B