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?).
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.
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.