REVIEW: “One Day as a Lion” (2023)

Touting itself as “a witty homage to Tarantino and the Coen brothers”, the new crime comedy “One Day as a Lion” definitely tries to fit that image. Unfortunately it tries a little too hard – from its dialogue, to its characters, to its attempts at fusing action and comedy. Yet there’s something endearing about its efforts, even if they don’t lead to the kind of results the movie is clearly hoping for.

At a breezy 87 minutes, “One Day as a Lion” (a title that’s pulled from an old African proverb) doesn’t waste much time getting to where its going. Directed by John Schwab, the story follows an ex-boxer turned hitman named Jackie Powers (played by Scott Caan who also wrote the screenplay). Jackie is a bit of a boob and hardly the kind of guy you would entrust with an important job (can you see where this is going?).

Image courtesy of Lionsgate

But Jackie is also desperate. His 15-year-old son Billy (Dash Melrose) has been locked up in a juvenile detention center on a kidnapping charge and Jackie needs money for a good lawyer. His deadbeat ex-wife and Billy’s mother (Taryn Manning) is no help. So Jackie takes a debt collecting job from an old associate named Dom (George Carroll). It turns out a crusty old cowboy named Walter Boggs (a great J.K. Simmons) has ran up a $100,000 gambling debt with Dom’s boss, a gangster named Pauly Russo (Frank Grillo).

Jackie tracks Walter to a small town Oklahoma diner, but he botches the job leading him to swapping gunfire with Walter and accidentally killing the cook in the exchange. Jackie escapes, grabbing the lone witness as his hostage – a down-on-her-luck waitress Lola Brisky (Marianne Rendón). Lola is an aspiring actress who ventured off to Costa Rica to open up an acting school that’s on the verge of going belly-up. She came back to the States to secure some money, but her wealthy and ailing mother (Virginia Madsen) isn’t all that supportive.

Jackie and Lola seize the opportunity to help each other out, all while on the run from the cops and Dom who has been sent by a ticked-off Pauly to clean up the mess Jackie left behind. It’s a fairly entertaining setup and the colorful blend of characters are constantly elevating the material. Simmons is especially good and gets a lot of mileage out of what amounts to a smaller supporting role. Grillo is his usual rock-solid self. Unfortunately he’s handcuffed to some of the film’s worst dialogue which makes him sound more like a manufactured movie tough guy than a real person.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

One of the biggest treats is the dryly funny Rendón who does some fun and interesting things with the cynical and disillusioned Lola. It’s a really good performance and the movie is often at its best when she’s on screen. As for her chemistry with Caan, it’s fine yet missing a spark. It all comes down to the relationship between their characters which, much like the movie itself, never quite comes to boil. It’s a little too undercooked, and it’s really hard to understand their mutual attraction which inevitably surfaces.

The film’s tonal gymnastics can be a little challenging as well. The comedy doesn’t always gel with the crime thriller elements. And the occasional bursts of pulpy violence can clash with the more heartfelt family drama. But the fleet-footed story bounces from place to place fast enough that it’s hard to think too much on its shortcomings. That makes it easy to digest. At the same time you can’t help but think how better it could have been with a little more detail and focus. “One Day as a Lion” opens tomorrow in select theaters and on VOD.


REVIEW: “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” (2023)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

You never know what to expect from a Guy Ritchie movie. He’s had a career full of ups and downs yet he’s always managed to find work, often helming major big-budget projects with varying degrees of success (2017’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is said to have lost Warner Bros. over $150 million while 2019’s live-action “Aladdin” grossed over $1 billion worldwide for Disney). And Ritchie seems to have no trouble drawing familiar names to his big star-studded ensembles.

Such is the case with his latest, “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre”, a Guy Ritchie movie through and through. It’s a film that features what fans like about his movies as well as what frustrates his detractors. How much mileage you get out it will probably depend on which side you fall on. I tend to be a fence-straddler when it comes to Ritchie so it’s no surprise I landed smack in the middle of this lightweight yet entertaining enough action comedy.

Co-written by the trio of Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, and Marn Davies, the story revolves around a stolen device called “The Handle”. It’s believed that a billionaire arms dealer named Greg Simmonds (a delightfully droll Hugh Grant) is set to broker a deal between the Ukrainian mobsters who stole the device and a mystery buyer. The British government tasks Nathan Jasmine (Carl Elwes) with identifying the buyer and keeping “The Handle” from getting to the open market.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Nathan calls on elite secret agent Orson Fortune (Jason Statham) who reluctantly agrees to head a covert team. Joining him is an unproven yet supremely confident tech whiz, Sarah Fidel (Aubrey Plaza) and a super-serious sharpshooter, J.J. Davies (rapper Bugzy Malone). After learning that Simmonds is hosting a huge charity event in Cannes, the team blackmails his favorite Hollywood movie star Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett) into helping them infiltrate the gala.

But of course not everything goes as smoothly as planned and in movies like this there always seems to be a fly in the ointment. For Orson and his team it’s a former agent named Mike (Peter Ferdinando) who has been hired by a rival intelligence agency to retrieve “The Handle”. He’s like a pimple that won’t go away, and he always seems one step ahead of them.

As with any good spy movie, there are some twists, turns, and revelations along the way, although not nearly as many as you might expect. In fact, much of “Operation Fortune” is pretty straightforward and it packs very few surprises. There is plenty of globe-trotting though, with stops being made in Madrid, Cannes, Antalya, Doha, and more. Some seem to be thrown in just for show. But Ritchie gets a lot out of other locations.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

As far as the cast goes, they all help make this fairly tame cocktail a little tastier. As always, Statham makes for a charismatic antihero while constantly reminding us that he can genuinely act. Plaza brings her signature weirdness (and I say that as a compliment), giving the movie an offbeat kick. Hartnett is a really good tag-along goof. And a waggish Grant steals as many scenes as he chews up.

“Operation Fortune” sticks to a pretty conventional formula, and it’s obvious that Ritchie is mainly interested in making easy to consume, soft-serve entertainment. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen variations of before, and there’s even less that will stick with you after the credits roll. Ritchie seems perfectly fine with that. To his credit, he doesn’t pretend to be making something innovative or original. He’s completely honest about what he’s going for and content with how it turns out.

Still, while Ritchie’s well-worn bag of tricks keeps him (and his film) firmly planted in his comfort zone, there is fun to be had with this by-the-books spy romp. Everyone on screen seems to be having a good time which turns out to be contagious. This is essentially Guy Ritchie doing his own Bond movie. It may be light on thrills, but there’s no shortage of the filmmaker’s energy and style. We get a couple of good action scenes and a few lighthearted chuckles here and there. And while it’s not very filling, it’s well-paced, meaning we spend more time enjoying ourselves than scrutinizing the silliness of it all. “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” opens in theaters today (March 3rd).


REVIEW: “The Offering” (2023)

Jewish folklore meets horror’s demon possession sub-genre in director Oliver Park’s smart and sinister new chiller “The Offering”. Written by Hank Hoffman from a story he conceived with Jonathan Yunger, this surprisingly rich and devilishly spooky tale digs into themes of family, reconciliation, repentance, and sacrifice. At the same time, it fully embraces many elements of the horror genre, leading to its eerie atmosphere and ominous sense of dread. Best of all, nothing about “The Offering” feels old hat.

Park and Hoffman’s melding of classic horror with strained family dynamics is a key ingredient that sets “The Offering” apart. It has the perfect horror movie setting which Park utilizes to the fullest, and genre fans will immediately recognize many of his techniques and tricks. But it’s his keen management of tone rather than an over-reliance on cheap jump scares that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Image Courtesy of DECAL

Then you have the family angle which adds some unexpectedly potent layers to the story. From the father-son tensions to their Hasidic background, Park gives a lot of attention to developing the frayed family at the center of Hoffman’s story. But its the details, both familial and cultural, that not only enrich the drama, but that feeds directly into the horror. It ends up turning something potentially conventional into a more thoughtful yet delightfully creepy experience.

After years away from home, Art (Nick Blood), along with his pregnant wife Claire (Emily Wiseman), arrive in Borough Park, Brooklyn where his estranged father Saul (a terrific Allan Corduner) owns and operates Feinberg Funeral Home. They arrive unannounced and with no real explanation other than Art’s desire (at Claire’s urging) to reconcile with his father.

Saul is delighted yet understandably curious at his son’s sudden reappearance. He welcomes Art with open arms and immediately hits it off with Claire, who happens to be non-Jewish. But Heimish (Paul Kaye), a long-time family friend who also works at the funeral home, is much more skeptical. He doesn’t trust Art and warns Saul to keep his guard up.

Things take a more sinister turn after the body of a local Jewish man arrives at the funeral home. During the film’s opening prologue we see man encounter a terrifying demon known by many different languages, cultures, and religions as “The Taker of Children”. Before dying, the man was able to trap the demon within his body and seal it inside by an enchanted pendant. As long as the demon remains in the dead body it is powerless. But if the pendant is taken away or destroyed, the seal will be broken. See where this is going?

Image Courtesy of DECAL

As the story unfolds we’re treated to more family drama as Art’s motives for returning are revealed. And we get more frights once the demon is inevitably let loose in the cold unnerving funeral home. Lorenzo Senatore’s cinematography is essential to capturing the mood Park is going for, making especially great use of lighting and shadows. Add to it Park’s confidence in his vision and his ability to build tension through his camera, often by small and/or or subtle choices that really enhance a number of scenes.

And then you have the heavy infusion of Jewish faith and folklore; of ritual and tradition. It’s a component that effectively places us within an immersive orthodox world that will be as foreign to some (myself included) as any purely fictional setting. It’s authentic and eye-opening. But it also brings something fresh and original to the horror genre. And as any honest fan will tell you, freshness and originality aren’t words often associated with the horror movies of today. They certainly apply here. “The Offering” is now showing in select theaters and on digital/VOD.


REVIEW: “The Old Way” (2023)

In this wild and crazy “Age of Cage” (a phrase borrowed from the title of a terrific book from Keith Phipps – you should read it), there isn’t an idea, a style, or a genre that the 58-year-old nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola won’t try. The prolific Nicolas Cage has become something of a cultural phenomenon and seems to have fully embraced his cult status as evident by last year’s feature length self-parody “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”.

Cage shows no signs of slowing down. He has six movies in the works including his latest, “The Old Way”. It’s a Western that sees Cage playing a retired gunslinger whose past sins come back to haunt him. This modestly budgeted but handsomely shot genre flick comes from director and producer Brett Donowho who seems well studied on the classic Western form. Perhaps a little too studied at times, as his film leans pretty heavy on the countless movie and television Westerns that came before it.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

This comes through most in the script penned by Carl W. Lucas. His age-old tale of revenge is chock full of well-worn genre tropes, and anyone who is the slightest bit familiar with classic Westerns will know exactly where “The Old Way” is going within the first ten minutes. Yet despite its by-the-book story and (at times) storytelling, there’s a certain charm to the film which is mostly due to the performances of Cage and his young co-star Ryan Kiera Armstrong.

In an opening prologue we’re introduced to a notorious hired gun named Colton Briggs (Cage sporting a hilariously bad mustache meant to make him look younger I suppose). When a public hanging goes sideways, Briggs is forced to kill a man in front of his young son. Briggs hops on his horse and rides away while the camera slow zooms in on the face of the seething boy. Of course the most basic understanding of Westerns 101 let’s us know that this is one killing that’s going to have consequences.

Hop ahead to twenty years later. Briggs has shaved off his mustache (good move) and put his gunfighting days behind him. These days he runs a small town mercantile. But the biggest change is that he’s now happily married to his wife Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) and they have a 12-year-old daughter together named Brooke (Armstrong). All seems right for the one-time killer, but of course it’s short lived.

While Briggs and Brooke are in town at their store, back home Ruth is approached by a not-so-mysterious stranger named James McAllister (Noah Le Gros). It turns out he has a score to settle with Briggs (and I bet you can guess what it is). And what better way than to kill the woman he loves. But McCallister and his henchmen (played by Shiloh Fernandez, Clint Howard, and Abraham Benrubi) don’t quite realize what they’ve done. But we do thanks to some comically on-the-button lines like “You boys have woke up the devil.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

After Federal Marshall Jarret (Nick Searcy) informs him that his wife is dead, a quietly simmering Briggs dusts off his old six-shooters and sets out for revenge with young Brooke in tow. While his cold-blooded killer impulses immediately rush to the surface, his fairly new fatherly instincts remain, making for a pretty interesting conflict that Donowho and Lucas have fun exploring. It comes to a head in one particular campfire monologue that has no reason to work. But it’s so much fun, simply by it being Nic Cage delivering it. It’s a weird variable, I know. Yet it’s something he brings that’s uniquely his own.

I love westerns and have grown to appreciate them more as they have become more scarce. This one won’t bag Cage his second Academy Award, but fans of the enigmatic star will have fun with it. The story does some interesting things with the struggle between his character’s cold-blooded instincts and his newfound conscience. And young Armstrong makes for a good sidekick. But don’t expect anything you haven’t seen before. I had a good time with “The Old Way”, but it’ll have a hard time standing out. And Cage’s growing cult status can only carry it so far. “The Old Way” hits theaters January 6th.


REVIEW: “On the Line” (2022)

Several actors have found new life in the world of VOD. What started in earnest during the VHS video tape era is now thriving with Video On Demand. Prior to the sad news of his retirement due to health problems, Bruce Willis was putting out several of these low-budget, straight-to-VOD action-thrillers per year (he made SEVEN in 2021 alone). While Mel Gibson is still seen in larger big screen projects, lately he’s been popping up in several of these VOD features.

Gibson’s latest “On the Line” comes from writer, director, and co-producer Romuald Boulanger, and technically it fits within the VOD sphere in terms of budget and (at times) quality. But Boulanger creates a few moments that elevate it beyond the box that so many of these movies snugly fit in. And we get a few scenes that tease us with the old Mel Gibson who can carry a movie with his gravelly charisma alone.

But “On the Line” can’t quite shake the nagging problem of its utterly preposterous scenario. It left me with so many questions. It’s also a movie that hinges so much on its final act twist. But getting to that twist isn’t easy. The movie’s shaky opening gives way to a middle section that ranges from head-scratching to astonishingly bad. But what makes this such a hard review to consider is that the ending actually explains why the long and bumpy middle is the way it is. But that doesn’t make our first sitting through the stretch any more satisfying.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Gibson plays Elvis Cooney, a “legendary” LA shock jock who hosts a popular midnight radio show called On the Line. After arriving at the station for his evening slot, Elvis butts heads with his on-air rival, Justin (Kevin Dillon), gets an earful from his ratings-worried boss, Sam (Nadia Farès), and is introduced to his new producer named Dylan (William Moseley). He then sits down with his switchboard operator, Mary (Alia Seror-O’Neill) and kicks off his caller-based program.

Early into the show, Elvis takes a disturbing call from a troubled man named Gary from Pasadena. He claims to be outside of the home of the man who “ruined his life”, and if Elvis takes him off the air he’ll kill everyone inside. It puts Elvis in a tricky predicament that only gets thornier once Gary reveals he’s at Elvis’ house. So with his wife and daughter held hostage by an armed madman, all Elvis can do is keep him on the line and play his demented game of wits.

It all makes for a fairly interesting premise that’s easy to latch onto but hard to stay connected with, especially as things get more and more absurd. Outside of Elvis, all we get are wafer-thin characters, some weird decision-making, and bits of cringe-worthy dialogue that’s hard to get past. But then we get that twist which makes you second guess your frustrations with the earlier stuff. It’s just as ridiculous, but it does catch you off-guard and help make sense of what you’ve seen up to that point. But it’s hard to toss aside the experience leading up to the reveal. It’s ultimately what keeps the film from hitting its ambitious mark. “On the Line” premieres today, November 4th, in select theaters and on VOD.


REVIEW: “Old Man” (2022)

Stephen Lang plays a character simply credited as Old Man in the fittingly titled new psychological horror-ish thriller “Old Man”. Now for the sake of clarity, this isn’t the same old man he plays in the two “Don’t Breathe” movies although certain similarities are impossible to miss. Instead, here he plays an old man living in seclusion somewhere deep in the wilds of the Smokey Mountains.

“Old Man” is a wily two-hander led by Lang and Marc Senter. Directed by Lucky McKee from a script by Joel Veach, the movie does a nice job sucking you into its crude, one-location setting. At least for a while. Unfortunately it begins to lose its grip around the halfway mark, struggling to maintain the tension it builds so well early on. But Lang and Senter keep it afloat. They’re nice fits for Veach’s off-kilter story, and McKee smartly leans on his two actors and their weird yet fascinating chemistry.

Courtesy of RLJE films

Its no-frills setup begins with the camera panning around and snaking through a rustic wood cabin, stopping on an old man (Lang) in red longjohns asleep on a bed. He suddenly snaps awake as if jolted from a nightmare. He gathers himself (sort of) and gets up, his bones creaking as much as the tired bed springs and planked flooring. He starts rambling incoherently, calling for his dog Rascal who has apparently run off. “Nobody leaves me”, he grumbles with a tinge of anger in his voice.

Suddenly there’s a knock on his door. Startled, the old man grabs his double-barrel shotgun and opens it to find a polite yet nervous young man named Joe (Senter). The old man pulls him inside, sticking his gun to the terrified young man’s throat. What’s this guy doing at his cabin in the middle of nowhere? “My wife, she didn’t send you out here, did she?”, asks the suspicious old-timer, hinting at a backstory which will come more into focus a bit later.

Courtesy of RLJE films

Joe explains he got lost in the woods. He saw the smoke from the old man’s chimney so he came to the cabin for help. Should the old man believe his uninvited guest’s story? Should Joe be scared of the old man with gun? Nearly the entire movie is spent sorting these questions out as the unhinged codger and his jittery visitor simply talk – tense and genuinely frightening at first; deeper and more personal later. Yet we know from the start that things aren’t as they seem. It comes down to patiently waiting for McKee to reveal his hand.

As for that reveal, it’s fine. Nothing as twisted and gnarly as I hoped for (the film would had benefited from a final act burst of gonzo nuttiness). Instead it goes in another direction, adding a twist that’s reasonably clever but that won’t blow anyone’s socks off. Still, “Old Man” squeezes a lot out of its meager budget and single setting. And there are stretches where you’re so absorbed in the dialogue and the two central performances that the film’s constraints all but vanish. And while it sputters in the second half, it keeps your attention throughout – a testament to the talent both in front of and behind the camera. “Old Man” is out now in select theaters.