Credit: Lionsgate
by Steven Warner Featured Film Genre Views

One Day as a Lion — John Swab

April 14, 2023

The hardest working man in show business, otherwise known as John Swab, is back with One Day as a Lion, the director’s third feature of 2023 — and we’re not even halfway through April. But for the first time in the filmmaker’s career, script duties come courtesy of someone else entirely — in this case, star Scott Caan, who has written and helmed a handful of feature films over the years. Yet there is no questioning whether One Day as a Lion is a Swab production, so unmistakable has his style become over the course of seven films. Indeed, it has reached a point where the low-budget auteur has amassed a bit of a following when it comes to fans of certain kinds of genre fare: specifically, DTV-adjacent crime thrillers dabbling in exploitation, where tough-talking dudes swing their big dicks all in the name of old-fashioned vengeance. There’s more than a little of Water Hill in Swab’s cinematic DNA, reinforced by truly impressive filmmaking chops that favor unfussy camerawork and clean, precise shot compositions that look and feel like the product of a bygone era, never calling attention to themselves even as they command it from the viewer in the most subtle of ways. 

Caan stars as Jackie Powers, an overall fuck-up who, as the film opens, has been instructed to kill an old cowpoke by the name of Walter (J.K. Simmons) who owes large sums of money to crime boss Pauly Russo (Frank Grillo). Things naturally don’t go as planned, resulting in Walter’s escape, a dead diner owner, and the kidnapping of the only witness, waitress Lola (Marianne Rendon). Jackie is no better at kidnapping than assassination attempts, and it isn’t long before Lola has the upper hand, hatching a plan that involves garnering money from the young woman’s cancer-ridden mother (Virginia Madsen). Meanwhile, Pauly sends one of his goons — and, coincidentally enough, Jackie’s best friend, Dom (Georgie Carroll) — to find the pair, while Pauly himself deals with Walter. And if this all sounds like way too many characters and plot threads for an 87-minute feature, it most certainly is, and that’s before we get to Jackie’s incarcerated son (Dash Melrose). Importantly, though, both Caan and Swab are smart enough to devote most of the runtime to Jackie and Lola, whose relationship turns romantic in ways that, in brief moments, can surprisingly — one might even say miraculously — recall the works of Hal Ashby, which is certainly not what anyone walking into this will expect. 

Thematically, One Day as a Lion finds Swab in his element, the off-kilter nature of the story allowing the filmmaker to indulge in a few of his patented digressions (although there is notably nary an ‘80s pop needle-drop to be found, and such an exclusion will feel borderline cruel to any fellow Swabbies). Indeed, all of the Grillo/Simmons stuff here feels less like a meaningful detour and more like flavored filler, so tangential it is to the main plot. Despite that, however, Swab consistently garners strong performances from his game cast members, and Rendon is a borderline revelation, a walking contradiction of edge and vulnerability who has screen presence to burn. She and Caan share a fair amount of chemistry, but one that seems slightly and appropriately off, a peculiarity that is entirely to the film’s advantage. It makes for a decidedly compelling central dynamic, and while one could argue that the ending lands with pure anti-climax, the freeze-frame that caps the picture off is nothing less than perfection, covering a multitude of minor sins. One Day as a Lion certainly isn’t Swab’s best film — which is no criticism in itself — but it mostly succeeds in righting the wrongs present in the director’s last Grillo joint, February’s underwhelming Little Dixie. It’s certainly more than enough to entice the viewer to see what the singular director has up his sleeve next; the wait, luckily, shouldn’t be long.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 15.