Review: One Day as a Lion Squanders One Good Performance and a First-Draft Script with Potential

I don’t normally read press notes on a film before viewing it (and rarely after, other than to retrieve the occasional cast list), but I noticed in the outreach for the latest film from director John Swab (Candy Land, Little Dixie) and writer/star Scott Caan, One Day as a Lion, this prime example of self promotion: “This crime comedy is a witty homage to Tarantino and the Coen brothers.”

Yeah, not quite. Unless you consider most characters in this movie dropping the f-bomb in nearly every line of dialogue a “Tarantino homage,” that claim is a bit of a stretch.

One Day as a Lion feels like the first draft of a decent screenplay. There are ideas here that might have been made into something if the writer had bothered to fall in love with movies made before 1990 (which is strange, considering that the writer’s late father, James Caan, was in a few of those films). That being said, Caan’s Jackie opens the film walking into a nearly empty diner, occupied only by the chef, a waitress on her first day (Lola, played by Marianne Rendón), and a single customer, an older ranch owner named Walter Briggs (a bearded and decidedly ornery J.K. Simmons). He sits down with Walter, demanding that money owed to the man who hired him be paid back immediately, and within seconds a gunfight erupts, resulting in the chef being accidentally killed, Walter escaping on the horse he rode in on, and Jackie grabbing Lola and running as far away from that bloody scene as possible.

The event triggers a series of meetings and conversation, each of which reveals a bit more about each character, and others including Frank Grillo’s crime boss Pauly Russo, his underling and Jackie’s friend Dom (George Carroll), Jackie’s ex-wife Taylor (Taryn Manning), and Lola’s filthy rich, terminally ill mother Valerie (Virginia Madsen). We also learn that Jackie isn’t very bright, but he is fiercely loyal, especially to his teen son Billy (Dash Melrose), who is currently in prison awaiting his arraignment hearing. The only reason Jackie agrees to act as muscle to get Pauly’s money back from Walter is to get money to retain a supposedly skillful attorney to get his son out of jail. We also find out that Lola is a would-be actress looking for her big break. Also, her mother’s will stipulates that in order to inherit any money after her death, she must be married, so she and Jackie pretend they are engaged to perhaps get an advance from the battle-axe before she dies. The film is nothing if not sentimental.

Shot entirely in a very lonely corner of Oklahoma, One Day as a Lion puts us through the paces of a cat-and-mouse game without us really caring one way or the other who lives or dies. Jackie seems to genuinely be falling for Lola, though she’s been hardened enough by life that she isn’t buying it, even if she begins falling for Jackie’s sweet side. I guess we’re supposed to be rooting for them to get their money, get his son out of jail, and get the hell out of Dodge before the law tracks them down. Meanwhile, there’s a whole other movie going on concerning Walter and his would-be debt collectors. According to him, he was going to pay the money back but now his feelings are hurt because Pauly sent someone after him, so not only does he refuse to pay but he and his farm hands/goons are willing to gun down anyone who attempts to collect. 

There’s also a fight scene involving Jackie (a former boxer) and Dom, in which Jackie is in his tighty-whities, which I guess is meant to be a funny visual gag, but it just made me squeamish. The deeper into this story we go, the less I cared about how it ended. It runs out of ideas as fast as it runs out of steam. Even in his breakthrough role in Stephen Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies, I have never quite warmed up to Caan’s appeal as an actor. He’s a good-looking kid, but he seems to be aping his father’s tough-guy persona without matching his luggish charm. Simmons is at least trying something different, and he has some great tough-guy lines here that add a little electricity to the proceedings.

The discovery is Rendón, who creates a cynical character we want better things for, and we get glimpses of Lola’s acting abilities in unexpected places that at least add to her character’s development. Either Caan cared the most about her character during the writing, or she is injecting something into Lola that wasn’t on the page. Whatever the case, the surrounding film doesn’t do her justice, and it’s a shame because the result is that few will get to see her powerhouse work here.

The film is now playing in theaters, and will be available via VOD on Friday, April 7.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.