One Day as a Lion (2023) Review
One Day as a Lion was directed by John Swab (Run with the Hunted, Candy Land), written by Scott Caan (Hawaii Five-0, Varsity Blues), and stars Caan, Marianne Rendon (Imposters, Gemini), Frank Grillo (Operation Seawolf, Paradise Highway), George Carroll (Girl House, Dead Draw), Taryn Manning (Every Last One of Them, The Gateway), J.K. Simmons (The Tomorrow War, Glorious), Dash Melrose (Whitetail, Lost Kings), and Virginia Madsen (Candyman, The Magic of Belle Isle). It follows a lacklustre hitman and his hostage as they flee their pursuers while hatching a plan to get away clean.
The Plot: Billed as an homage to the works of Tarantino and the Coen brothers, Caan’s story at first shows some level of creativity and ingenuity with its use of misunderstandings and mistakes but soon turns into an overcrowded glut of subplots looking for a throughline.
Left without viable means to keep his son Billy (Melrose) from following his criminal footprint, Jackie (Caan) has turned to hired killing to fund a somewhat normal life for the kid. This has brought him to local crime bosses Pauly (Grillo) and Dom (Carroll) for quick cash. Easy in theory but difficult in execution (pun if you want it), Jackie’s extortion contract on Walter (Simmons) goes awry, forcing him to take Lola (Rendon) – the waitress at the diner this event occurs at – hostage. One Day as a Lion doesn’t boast any original ideas within its setup, but the denial of the hostage being baggage bodes well.
Since the job didn’t get completed and Walter knows the who and the why, Jackie, and now Lola, become the new targets, even though Walter should still be the priority. Few surprises lie within the main plotline, but the scheme that the fleeing duo comes up with – convincing Lola’s curmudgeonly mother Valerie (Madsen) to fork out the fee – is at least something different. However, the script zooms out far wider than it needs to for a small-town story, seeking to bring in Jackie’s ex-wife Taylor (Manning) without fleshing out the actions that resulted in Jackie’s presence in the current situation.
Watching isn’t required to know where One Day as a Lion is going to end up, but it’s the fumbling of the plot’s development and logic that makes it truly disappointing.
The Characters: Depth isn’t exactly required in a film that has its tongue planted in cheek, but Caan and Swab try to bring something out of the crew of characters here. Only some of them land as intended while the others feel like cutesy winks without charm.
Jackie is a numbskull, but he means well. Presumably few feasible paths have presented themselves, and if they have, he probably missed them, since he’s not exactly one for situational awareness, which makes his choice to go the criminal route believable. He’s not one for violence if it can be avoided but will resort to anything in order to provide for Billy in order to facilitate progress in the family tree. Caan’s script tends to go overboard with the clumsiness of Jackie, but the idea is clear and endearing.
Lola’s lack of backstory doesn’t work in the same way that Jackie’s does. It can be intuited why he’s on his current path, but Lola’s relationships are less decipherable. She’s slaving away in a quiet town for scraps after her failed acting career and business venture in Costa Rica, resentful of her gold-digging mother’s choice to cut her out of the family’s wealth. Valerie doesn’t offer much enlightenment as to why this is the case, but it gets Lola into gear. As close as she could possibly get to that, anyway, as she goes along with Jackie, which should make her similarly likeable, but stealing from one’s own mother is just too low.
Pauly, Dom, and Walter fare similarly to the protagonists, only with less development and personality. Pauly and Dom are rather generic mob types who want solutions instead of fixes, even though they both make the wrong calls. One Day as a Lion doesn’t indicate exactly what they’ve done to be the highest on the food chain, leaving Pauly to rattle off demands to Dom for most of the movie. Walter is a likeable modern-day cowboy, trying to live peacefully without interruption while consuming alcohol and breezy weather, but isn’t given much aside from this. For him, it’s enough, but the stumbles with the secondary protagonist and both antagonists make the roster a bit forgettable.
The Crime: All signs may point to a thriller, but One Day as a Lion tries to look a little deeper into the interconnected environments and inspect the underground conflicts instead of using them to excite.
Watching the hired goober try to finish his job only lasts for a few minutes of screen time, as Swab quickly de-escalates the situation at hand by bringing Jackie and Lola to Valerie’s doorstep to source necessary funds. This too is dumped, as the opportunities for a criminal subplot are dumped in favour of straightforward family reunions with Valerie and Billy. Those hoping for some uptick in criminal activity at the hands of Jackie and Lola with a prison break (juvie break is more like it) or something of the like will be left wanting anything.
On the other side of the situation are the debtors and their escapee, which soon loses any steam it might have had when the first interaction between Dom and Walter results in the qualm almost being put to rest. Caan doesn’t have much for these characters to do, pitting them across from each other time and again so they can describe how insulted both parties are at the actions taken. Though Walter is short by $100k, no one acts like it, with mob influence and individual conning strangely absent from One Day as a Lion.
Simplicity isn’t a virtue here, as One Day as a Lion doesn’t offer much insight into either of the criminal conflicts, losing any semblance of physical or punitive threat by the halfway mark – though it’s already fading by 30 minutes in.
The Technics: Speedy productions don’t make movies bad, but they can certainly limit a feature. Swab has churned out six full-length films in three years, with little in the way of memorability amongst them – One Day as a Lion included.
As is often the case for any movie trying to ride the coattails of auteurs like Tarantino, the Coen brothers, or even Mamet, the dialogue here is largely a swing and a miss. Relying on profanity like a crutch would damage just about any movie, but the choice to make the middle stretch of this one consist largely of monologues and macho confrontations stands out as the worst possible decision in the production. While there are some good lines littered about, the movie grows tiresome because of its limited vocabulary.
Either without much time or without much effort, Swab’s picture is largely interchangeable with other low-budget movies because of its frequently static frames. Will Stone (Breach, Faith Based), the movie’s cinematographer, lights everything flatly and shoots without movement, making One Day as a Lion feel like it goes on a lot longer than it does (running approximately 71 minutes without credits). Even when there is something to shake up the visual monotony, it’s normally a stiffly choreographed fight scene or CG blood from an awkward gunfight.
Strong acting across the board and a few minor achievements in changing low-budget formulas don’t make up for the blandness One Day as a Lion exhibits (pun if you want it). For all its attempts to be cute, it just ends up listless.
One Day as a Lion is available on Digital and VOD Platforms via Lionsgate. It will be available on DVD on May 16th. If you’re in the mood for more films like this, FilmTagger can recommend a few titles.