I remember being intrigued by this title when it first released in 2018, largely due to the fact that I do appreciate a solid, self-contained mid-budget thriller / action flick, especially those boasting solid casts. Right off the top of my shaved noggin, entries such as The Usual Suspects (1995), Identity (2003), Smokin Aces (2006), Armored (2009), Free Fire (2016) and Bullet Train (2022), among several others, want to rub shoulders with Bad Times at the El Royale, in THAT regard. Also, aside from populating movies like this with multiple intriguing characters and twisty story lines, they often make use of a small number of key settings, where a location often becomes a character unto itself. I’ve always liked that inclusion.
This one kept popping up and for whatever reason, I simply hadn’t committed. But, on an unexpectedly snowy Saturday afternoon, I decided to seal myself into my Man Cave and FINALLY get around to seeing what this mysterious lil flick was all about.
Written and directed by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), Bad Times at the El Royale takes place sometime in the early 1970’s at a once snazzy hotel / motel straddling the border between California and Nevada. We are introduced to a handful of sketchy characters, who all seem to be checking in for reasons other than a relaxing hotel stay. Everyone has secret motives and plans, and these begin to cross over in rather dastardly and, at times, bloody ways. Things really ramp up when the Charles Manson-like leader of a nefarious hippie cult arrives with armed goons in tow to collect a specific prize from the ritzy but largely deserted premises.
–Cool intro. Single long shot. Feeling much like a scene from a play, we are treated to an extended single-take long shot of a hotel room. We see a mysterious, and armed, fella enter and before long, he’s tearing up the carpet and flooring to hide a satchel in the darkened recesses below the floor boards. Then…knock, knock…*shotgun blast*…End Scene.
–The Dude! Aside from Chris Hemsworth (Thor), I’d forgotten most of the names turning up in the cast. I’ve been a fan of Jeff Bridges going back to when I first saw Tron (1982) as a little kid and have followed him ever since. Here, he appears as a priest struggling with encroaching memory loss but…as with all the characters…there’s a bit more to him than that.
–Hamm. A dick from the get-go. Straight out of Mad Men. John Hamm is introduced early on as a traveling vacuum cleaner salesmen and he’s a sexist dick in no time at all. However, the use of the word ‘dick’ here isn’t exactly an accident, as will be noticed as more of his background is unleashed. Given the time period and the accompanying sexist attitudes, this could easily be a companion piece to his ‘Don Draper’ character.
–Flynn? Easter egg? We see each character sign a ledger on arrival and Jeff Bridges signs the name ‘Flynn’, which to those who know, is the name of his character from Tron. Coincidence?
–Everyone slightly ‘off’. As the characters enter the situation and begin to interact, it seems like everyone is hiding…something. There’s just a feeling that hangs over the scenario suggesting not all is as it seems.
–Holy crap! Wired for sound. Bugs. We seem John Hamm methodically going through his specifically requested Honeymoon Suite and he quickly begins locating a slew of hidden listening devices, which obviously makes us start doubting the validity of his Hoover salesman status. Questions start coming to mind.
–Bridges kinda creepy. At first, he’s kindly and helpful. But there’s just…something…off, and the creep factor begins rising.
–Bam! Down he goes! A sudden champagne bottle to the skull will quickly bringing consciousness to a temporary (or worse) end, as is abruptly demonstrated here with one key character.
–And Blam! Down HE goes! Another key character suddenly has a run-in with both barrels of a shotgun. Quick and messy.
–Is that ‘Bob’? Top Gun 2? Yep, that is the son of actor Bill Pullman (Lost Highway), Lewis Pullman, who I just saw for the first time in Top Gun: Maverick (2022). I knew I recognized him when he first entered the scene. Here he plays ‘Miles’, the lone concierge who also harbors some disturbing secrets.
–Cool lighting, compositions and edits. Has a style. These are all things found in this movie. No, it’s true.
–The interwoven plot threads motif is cool. Reminds of Identity. It also helps that THAT underrated John Cusack mystery flick also takes place at a far-flung and sparsely populated motel during a rainstorm in which a bloody murder mystery unfolds, pulling all participants into the violent dealings.
–Not sure about all the singing. One character, a lounge singer named ‘Darlene Sweet’ (Cynthia Erivo) breaks into song several times throughout the narrative, with only one instance really serving a specific, strategic purpose. It wasn’t all bad, but I grew tired of it quickly.
–Great 60’s soundtrack. It has one. Not even lying.
–Hemsworth’s a creepily, charismatic villain. This handsome devil is known for his buffed-up ‘good guy’ roles, but as Chris Hemsworth proves here, he can definitely turn on the ‘bad guy’ when warranted.
–123?! Damn! This is somebody’s body count. In my opinion, it’s just a little high.
–Ok, Vietnam. Didn’t expect that. It’s established late in the game that a key character is a Vietnam War veteran and the short flash-back clip we get of him in-country looked fairly convincing, based on the shit-load of Vietnam-themed films I’ve seen and the tons of real footage I’ve watched. And suddenly…a certain number makes more sense.
-‘Miles’ came through! Lewis Pullman’s character initially comes off as a creepy little worm-like pervert, but in the end, comes out like a barbarian and actually caught me off guard.
–Aw ‘Miles’. Ya had an arc. He did and it was one of the most clearly defined in the whole 2 hour and 22 minute run-time.
–Yep, that ending was appropriately abrupt. Given the already hefty run-time, the final credits roll about when they should’ve, even though a little time could’ve maybe been shaved off of the somewhat bulging Act Two. But narratively, the way it comes to a close gets pretty damn close to satisfying.
–Cool flick. Fun and creative. Not perfect, but definitely entertaining. And that does about sum it up.
All in all, I got pretty much what I hoped I would get on a gloomy Saturday afternoon from this one, and if you find yourself in a similar situation and want a decently executed and, at times, harrowing mystery / thriller populated by famous faces like Jeff Bridges, John Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth and others, you could definitely do worse. On THAT level, I can easily recommend Bad Times at the El Royale.
Check in and enjoy your stay. You just have to choose…California or Nevada.
*FYI – California’s a dollar more.