' ' Cinema Romantico: One Day as a Lion

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

One Day as a Lion

Putting your movie on a clock tends to raise suspense, as it did famously in “High Noon,” where the ticking clock was literal, or in the much more recent “John Wick: Chapter 4,” where an ornate three-hour movie never felt overly ornate or that long because of the countdown. But sometimes, as we all know, whether scientifically or innately, the more time speeds up, the more it seems to slow down, as it does in John Swab’s mid-shelf middling thriller “One Day as a Lion.” Though hapless would-be hitman Jackie Powers (Scott Caan) gets put on a clock after the hit he tries to carry out at the behest of the mob to earn the money he needs to pay a lawyer to spring his kid from juvie wind ups with the wrong guy dead and he and a diner waitress named Lola (Marianne Rendón), the lone witness to his inadvertent birdbrained crime, on the lam, Swab and Caan, doubling as co-screenwriters, immediately decelerate. Instead, “One Day as a Lion” becomes a high-octane thriller rendered in the key of a hangout movie, drifting along as its characters futz about, the various criminal lowlifes philosophizing about and arguing over underworld red tape. When Jackie and Lola pose as engaged to try and finagle a wad of cash from the latter’s mother, Valerie (Virginia Madsen), to fund her acting school dreams and pay for his lawyer, mom asks Jackie to get go some grab crab legs for her to eat while she mulls over the request. He acquiesces. This is a movie that has time for crab legs.

“One Day as a Lion” gets by in no small part on the combined energy of its leads. Swab emotionally links them in the opening sequence through profile shots of each character, him in his car, her at a table in the empty diner, positioning them both as someone who would rather be anywhere else. That’s true even when they’re together, not so much falling in love as just sort of emotionally skipping ahead to the point in their ersatz shotgun marriage where they already can’t stand each other. Caan might resemble a vein-bulging kind of bro, but his strength has always been a weary, annoyed deadpan and he wisely writes/plays to his strength here, emblemized his Hawaiian shirt with cowboys on horses rendering him as a pale, if amusing, imitation of the real thing, where the movie sort of writes off the person he accidentally kills in lieu of his intended target as Hey, He Didn’t Mean It. Rendón, meanwhile, reimagines Cameron Diaz’s spoiled rich kid in “A Life Less Ordinary” as a true slacker, while also evincing amusing pity for a kidnapper she is always two steps ahead of.

And while it’s true that Swab’s approach counteracts much of the scenario’s inherent tension and doesn’t really build to anything substantial, there’s something agreeable about this trivial air nonetheless, the ultimate pointlessness of the ostensibly big final shootout giving the entire movie the feel of a shaggy dog story. Granted, that’s why “One Day as a Lion” doesn’t really end, it just shrugs and fades out, but it also spiritually culminates several scenes earlier ends with a courtroom scene in which Jackie masquerades as his son’s lawyer and Lola masquerades as Jackie’s son’s mom. If up until this point, Lola’s acting bug has felt tangential, a trait assigned by the screenwriter more than anything real, in one fell swoop, Rendón makes up for that flaw by bringing her character improvising a monologue on the spot to ridiculous, glorious life, burying her character so deep in the role that I was reminded of another 1997 movie character, Dustin Hoffman’s “Wag the Dog” movie producer, so passionately animating a case of political fraud that it becomes honest.

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