You ever see one of those cover bands that do tight, spot-on tributes to an impressive array of classic hits?
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is the movie version of one of those bands.
Even with the A-list cast, this is a B-movie — a lurid, darkly funny, period-piece story with so much bloodshed you’ll be checking your hair and clothes for red stains as you exit the theater. Yes, it feels like a Quentin Tarantino film from the 1990s — but of course Tarantino regularly and liberally borrows from genre films of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, so it’s also a tribute to a tribute. Yep.
Writer-director Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”) is a talented stylist who gives “Bad Times” a deliberately multi-faceted personality.
Sometimes it’s a creepy thriller. Sometimes it’s a gripping and heartbreaking story of a man losing his memory. Sometimes it’s drive-in movie about a charismatic and thoroughly reprehensible cult leader. And then, from time to time, it’s for all intents and purposes a musical.
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The year is 1969. With the exception of flashback sequences, the story takes place in and around the El Royale, a hotel sitting squarely on the California/Nevada border. (Half of the rooms are in Nevada; half are in California. If you stay on the California side, it’s a dollar more, ’cause it’s California.)
Only a few years ago, the El Royale was a hopping hipster haven — near 100 percent capacity all the time, jumping with action every night, hosting the Rat Pack and other shining stars. But the proprietor lost its gambling license, and now the hotel is on life support.
In fact, there’s not a single guest staying at the El Royale before there’s a mini-flurry of activity, with a handful of strangers showing up at roughly the same time to check in.
Our roster of players:
• Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who sometimes struggles to recall his own name or why he’s standing where he’s standing.
• Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a backup singer for big-name acts who has never been able to break through as a solo act.
• Emily (Dakota Johnson), a foul-mouthed hippie chick, and her younger sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny).
• Slick-talking traveling salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm),
Also: Lewis Pullman as Miles, a deeply troubled soul who is the hotel’s sole employee; Chris Hemsworth as Billy Lee, a sociopath cult leader who dances like Jim Morrison but spouts the controlling gibberish of a Jim Jones, and Nick Offerman as a bank robber who years ago buried a large stash of dough under the floorboards of one of the rooms at the hotel.
Writer-director Goddard frames the story with title cards focusing on each of the main characters. We learn about certain key moments in their pasts that put them on the path to the El Royale, and we find out (surprise!) not everyone is exactly who they claim to be.
Taking turns in the spotlight, everyone in the cast is outstanding. When Bridges’ Father Flynn stops in mid-sentence when his memory fails, we can feel his frustration. Dakota Johnson is a force as the shotgun-wielding Emily, who will do anything to save her sister, who has fallen under the spell of the cult leader.
When Erivo’s Darlene takes out a metronome and sings a cappella, the beauty and power of her voice stops time. Hamm once again displays his versatility by playing the motor-mouthed vacuum cleaner salesman with a couple of tricks up his sleeve. Hemsworth’s Billy Lee is a ’60s cult cliché, but it’s a kick to see Thor using his golden locks and steel abs for evil instead of the greater good of the universe.
At times “Bad Times at the El Royale” is almost too self-conscious, and some scenes are extended to the point where one grows fidgety, waiting for the Next Big Surprise (which often isn’t all that surprising). There’s at least one too many trips to the jukebox (although it’s pretty great to hear Deep Purple’s “Hush” in the middle of the madness.) On occasion, the bursts of violence are legitimately unexpected; other times, we’re in overly familiar territory, e.g., just when one character is going in for the kill on a seemingly defenseless victim, out comes the knife for the quick and sudden stab to the gut!
But it’s all done with panache and a bloody wink.
‘Bad Times at the El Royale’
20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by Drew Goddard. Rated R (for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity). Running time: 140 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.