Movie review: 'Bad Times at the El Royale'

Brad Keefe
Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox

I see a lot of movies every year. I wish I saw a lot more movies like “Bad Times at the El Royale.”

It's not a superhero movie. It's not based on a popular young-adult novel. It's not a remake. It's not an attempt to launch a franchise. It's not a ready-made marketing event.

It's a movie that was made from a screenplay that was written … to be a movie.

That shouldn't be such a radical concept, I realize. But it's so goddamn refreshing to have numerous moments in a theater in 2018 where you think, “I did not know that was going to happen, and I do not know what is going to happen next.”

“El Royale” is a pulpy bit of fiction that should certainly please fans of Quentin Tarantino, both in style and plotting.

But hats off to writer-director Drew Goddard for making this kind of throwback noir also feel so fresh.

This is definitely a case of “the less you know going in the better,” but consider this plot synopsis vetted by someone who wants you to see this movie and doesn't want to give anything away.

It's the late '60s. The El Royale is a former destination resort that straddles the border of California and Nevada. As in, the resort is half in one state, half in the other.

Once a hot spot, the El Royale is now mostly deserted, making it an ideal locale for the sort of dark events that go down there when an unexpected crew of guests assembles.

We've got an aging priest (Jeff Bridges), an aspiring soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a traveling vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a badass hippie, if that's a thing (Dakota Johnson), and more.

Seven strangers assemble. Some unexpected things go down. If you need to know more, this is probably why we don't get more movies like this.

With this screenplay, Goddard feels like a kid in a candy store, assembling his characters, giving them backstories and then unravelling a wild series of dark pasts.

He's having fun here, which I would expect in the follow-up to his directorial debut, the delightful genre-upending horror-comedy “The Cabin in the Woods.”

He's a bit more grounded in “El Royale,” but style abounds, and he pulls out fantastic performances across a great ensemble that also seems to be having a blast.

Yeah, the runtime pushing 2-and-a-half hours maybe could have used some cuts (although it's well-paced and never feels like a slog). And yeah, maybe the third act feels a bit too much like he's trying to top himself.

But if he nailed that third act, I'd be talking about this as a potential Oscar frontrunner. Instead, I'm just asking you to go see it so I get to review more movies that are just movies.

Opens Thursday

4 stars out of 5

“Bad Times at the El Royale”