Picks and Pans Review: State of Grace

updated 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sean Penn, Gary Oldman

Probably the most telling scene in this film comes when Penn says that by returning to his old New York City neighborhood as an undercover cop, he had hoped to achieve something like the religious state of grace sought by Roman Catholics. Instead, his character laments, he loathes himself for ratting on former friends who are now professional crooks.

Penn plays the scene movingly, in an abstract way. It's clear he's tormented. But what is this character talking about?

While there is obviously something in his past he's trying to resolve, it's never explained. And as for his ex-pals, Oldman {Sid and Nancy) has become an alcoholic, compulsively violent maniac who routinely strong-arms old people and shoots people who annoy him, while Ed (The Abyss) Harris. Oldman's brother, has become the ruthless head of an Irish gang that aspires to bigger and worse things. These are unqualifiedly rotten guys.

Phil Joanou, best known for directing U2: Rattle and Hum, gives this film a distinctively grim atmosphere, but the script just clunks along. Penn, for instance, arrives in his old neighborhood apparently without even having given a moment's thought to the difficulties involved in setting up his old buddies. Then his conveniently unattached ex-girlfriend. Robin (The Princess Bride) Wright, takes him back instantly, even though he has been away for 12 years. And when Harris's gang goes strolling into a Mob stronghold in an Italian neighborhood, brandishing automatic weapons without being hit with so much as a stray cannoli, things get really cartoonish.

Even that pales, though, beside the ending, in which Penn pursues the clever tactic of walking slowly into a saloon where Harris and his henchmen are waiting with weapons drawn. Not to tip off the result, but you have to give Sean credit for keeping his marksmanship level so high, what with having lost that gallon of blood and having to compensate for those three or four pounds of lead his body is filled with. (R)

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