Bad Times at the El Royale review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale is a stew of dangerous characters with some hints of Tarantino flair thrown into the pot. It has its old-fashioned style of the 1960s, a visual flair for its unique location, an all-star cast of quirky actors, and plenty of violence bubbling over in its tale of intersecting lives. And while the film certainly spins quite a few stories ala Pulp Fiction, it just doesn’t quite have that gripping sensation to be as strong of a film.
The premise is still a unique one. Several different visitors have arrived at the El Royale hotel in 1969. Jeff Bridges plays a Catholic priest with a welcome smile that comes through his big beard. Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) is a nervous soul singer who tries her best to keep to herself. Dwight (Jon Hamm) is a vacuum cleaner salesman so talkative he needs to cram some coffee in him as soon as he arrives. Emily (Dakota Johnson) just seems like a hippie of the era that shoves others away with plenty of profanity. None of these characters, however, are what they seem.
Sure enough, everyone at the hotel is there more or less for one dirty reason or another. Some have a dark past they’re trying to run away from. Some have committed a crime and are trying to lay low. And some have a mission that needs to be completed. Even the hotel clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman) is clearly hiding some darker secret when initially setting the stage for the visitors. To keep things fresh, I’ll refrain from divulging the true identities of these characters and what exactly they want, but it’s less for spoilers and more for getting through the advocation of style over substance.
While there is certainly a Tarantino inspiration to be sure, it’s more within the construction than the writing. We see multiple perspectives of different characters that are broken into chapters and all of these intersecting stories climax in a big and bloody shootout. It sounds like Tarantino, but if it’s really heading down this path it’s missing a key component in great dialogue. Characters talk an awful lot in this film, but it more or less comes off as quick and blunt displays of ideologies and emotions than any grander personality quirk.
But let’s not be so hasty in comparing Goddard to such a filmmaker and take the film for what it’s worth. Credit where credit is due, the El Royale hotel is elaborately staged for some tense moments of gunplay and hostage-taking, as well as showcasing the shadier side of the establishment. The flashbacks have some flair to them and the brutal exchanges have a certain grit as well. There’s a bit of a freewheeling nature to how the film jumps around from different angles that it certainly won’t bore with its vivid nature.
The Bad Times at the El Royale has a certain allure of elements that have a familiar sensation despite the somewhat original aspect of its throwback nature. It never quite reaches the heights of an exceptional thriller. There’s a lot going on that the film is more pleasing for its elaborate nature than the delivery, considering how the twists become so frequent they lose their punch. It’s not a bad time. It’s not exactly a great time either.