The Westies were an Irish street gang that dominated the underworld in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood for three decades. T. J. English, a former New York City cab driver, second-generation Irish-American, and one-time reporter for the Irish Times wrote the definitive book about the gang, The Westies: Inside New York’s Irish Mob in 1990, about the same time, this movie was released.
State of Grace covers some of the same ground as English’s book, fictionalizing the names of the characters and adding some dramatic associations. By and large, however, the movie stays true to the core of the story, capturing the wanton violence and chaos that were two of the gang’s trademarks.
This was a disorganized organized crime.
English’s book is a classic. State of Grace, directed by Phil Joanou, doesn’t quite reach that level. But it’s a good movie with a stellar cast providing mesmerizing performances.
At the top of that list is Gary Oldman, whose character of Jackie Flannery defines both the time and the neighborhood. Jackie’s older brother Frankie (Ed Harris) is the leader of the gang.
Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) is Jackie’s longtime friend returning to the neighborhood after an absence of more than 10 years. He rekindles his friendship and renews his romance with Kathleen (Robin Wright), the sister of the two Flannery brothers.
John Turturro has a pivotal role as Nick. And Burgess Meredith makes a brief appearance as Finn, an aging neighborhood relic.
The relationships between the central characters form the backdrop for a story about love, honor, and betrayal. And while these themes are frequently explored in traditional Italian-American Mafia movies, here we get an Irish-American underworld to take on them.
As a result, there’s more guilt, introspection, and angst. Some come from Kathleen, who has moved uptown to get away from her roots. But most of it comes from Terry, whose reason for coming back to the neighborhood forms the major plotline in the movie.
Staying true to the actual history of the Westies—while never defining the gang by that name—State of Grace builds tension into a nascent business association between Frankie Flannery and a group of mobsters from Little Italy headed by a Mafioso named Borelli (Joe Viterelli).
In real life, the Westies developed working relationships with both the Genovese and Gambino crime families in New York and sometimes served as their enforcers and hitmen.
Violence was what the gang was about. As a History Channel documentary accurately noted, the Westies of the 1970s and 1980s “raised mayhem to a blood sport.”
But their roots were on the sidewalks of Hell’s Kitchen and in the corner taprooms where they sipped beer and smoked cigarettes while sitting on the same stools that their fathers and their fathers before them had occupied. Joanou, working from a script by Dennis McIntyre, is able to convey that sense of belonging and the anger and frustration that came with change—whether from the gentrification of the neighborhood or the association with the wiseguys from Little Italy. Oldman’s Jackie Flannery voices those sentiments repeatedly.
“They don’t even want to call it Hell’s Kitchen no more,” he tells Noonan shortly after his return. “Renamed it, Clinton.”
At another point, he says, “Yuppies got to be thicker than the rats and the roaches. Assholes can’t live without their dogs. Got dog shit all over the sidewalk. And it didn’t use to be that way. It used to be, you dropped a cone, you could lift it up and finish it. People are roaming the streets homeless because of these assholes.”
But Jackie’s brother Frankie, who has moved to a nice home in suburban New Jersey, sees opportunities in those changes and in emulating the wiseguys. He talks about maturity and discipline to a brother who just wants to fight, drink, smoke, and make love. The difference is defined early in the film when Frankie takes his crew into a local bar where they are attempting to shake down the owner.
Before they can grab any cash, the gang members, with Jackie right in the middle of it, start to fight among themselves. Then they all go have a drink.
It’s an Irish thing.
Frankie ultimately chooses the guys from Little Italy over his brother and the young brawlers he has around him. But this is only after a tension-filled sitdown in Little Italy.
Frankie meets with Borelli but arranges to have Jackie’s crew ready to rumble in the event things don’t go well. Jackie is told to set up in an abandoned building on Mott Street near the café where the meeting is to take place. Mott Street is in the heart of Little Italy, maybe a 20-minute car ride from Hell’s Kitchen.
As Jackie jumps into a van to head downtown, he asks his associates, “Anyone know how to get to Mott Street?”
Frankie, of course, knows. That’s the difference between the two brothers.
After Jackie is killed, Noonan has to choose between completing the job that brought him back to his old neighborhood or confronting Frankie and avenging the murder of his friend.
The climax is a shootout during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City. The gunplay takes place in a neighborhood bar. Where else would you expect a bunch of Irish gangsters to settle their differences?
HIT: The gritty feel of Hell’s Kitchen—old cars, trash-strewn streets, houses in disrepair—sets the mood for the narrative. The point, at the end of the day, is this: You can’t go home again. The question is: Why would you want to?
MISS: The premise, without giving up the film’s big plot twist, is a bit of a stretch. Noonan is gone for 10 to 12 years. The explanations of what he’s been doing during that time and why he’s come back to New York seem unrealistic . . . highly unlikely, in fact.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TME: “Every gangster story needs its loose cannon, the individual scary and erratic enough to take the possibility of danger way beyond the theoretical. Better still if that character, like Sonny Corleone of The Godfather or Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, is also vastly sympathetic, despite his own least enlightened or charitable instincts. State of Grace has a comparable figure in Jackie Flannery, the toughest and most volatile of the Hell’s Kitchen Irish-American hoods who are this film’s unflinching focus.”—Janet Maslin, New York Times
REALITY CHECK: One of the three unnamed mobsters gunned down in the bar by Jackie is played by Louie Eppolito, the so-called Mafia Cop. Eppolito was one of the most decorated police detectives in New York City history but left the department under a cloud because several of his relatives were members of the Gambino crime family. He wrote a book about his life called Mafia Cop. He denied that he had any ties to organized crime and tried to start a career as an actor and screenwriter.
In 2005, he and his former detective partner, Stephen Caracappa, were indicted on charges that, while on the NYPD force, they took money to funnel information to notorious mobster Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, helping Casso kill at least eight people. In one instance, authorities allege, they provided bad information, giving Casso the address of a man who had the same name as someone Casso wanted dead. The wrong man was killed. Eppolito and Caracappa were also charged with carrying out one hit for Casso.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Oldman’s performance alone makes this worth revisiting from time to time.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Both Oldman and Harris portrayed composer Ludwig von Beethoven in different movies. Oldman was the lead in Immortal Beloved (1994) and Harris starred in Copying Beethoven (2006).
CASTING CALL: Bill Pullman was originally chosen to play Frank Flannery, but was replaced by Harris.
BEST LINE: “Jesus Christ, I thought you Kitchen guys were tough guys,” Nick says during a dispute with Terry.
“We’re not tough, Nick,” Noonan replies. “We’re just crazy.”
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Near the top of the charts, wanton and repetitive.
BODY COUNT: Thirteen.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”