The Marvel star is never wearing a shirt and is more twisted than you’ve ever seen him before, so yeah, we're in.
Sometimes, it’s obvious what a movie is about -- the trailers and press buzz around films like "A Star Is Born" and "First Man" leave absolutely nothing to the imagination. But in cases like this weekend’s "Bad Times at El Royale," things are left intentionally mysterious, a tactic that helps keep the movie’s twists a surprise, but also sometimes discourages people from going to see it in the first place.
Luckily, while "El Royale" is a bit mysterious, it’s not exactly unprecedented.
After Quentin Tarantino blazed into Hollywood with "Reservoir Dogs," he remade the industry in his own image with his powerhouse second feature film, "Pulp Fiction." Tarantino’s style -- self-conscious, ultra-violent, dialogue-heavy, time-shifting homages to old ‘60s and ‘70s pulp movies -- became a genre unto itself, spawning a legion of imitators, some much better than others. The heavily stylized, mid-budget indie boom has now largely given way to big blockbuster franchises and streaming TV series, but every so often, we’ll discover a movie that wears its influences (and its influences’ influences) on its bloody sleeve.
Writer/director Drew Goddard’s "Bad Times at El Royale" is the latest entry into the Tarantino-inspired crime flick genre. About a motley crew of criminals and runaways at a semi-abandoned hotel on the California-Nevada stateline, "Bad Times" is a chamber piece a la "Reservoir Dogs" and "The Hateful Eight." It’s a period flick set in the ‘70s, like the upcoming "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." And it plays liberally with time sequences, showing the same scene over and over from different angles, much like "Pulp Fiction."
Goddard, who directed the cult hit "The Cabin in the Woods" and wrote "The Martian," plus shows "Lost" and "Daredevil," clearly has plenty of other inspirations, but the Tarantino thing is by far the most obvious here. Still, the movie isn’t just a collection of references, no matter how clear they might be. Where the plot and affectations may be familiar, it’s the cast that makes the movie stand out and worth your time.
More than anything else, you can expect to be entertained by committed performances by people not doing this for the money. Goddard assembled an incredible group of actors, in large part by getting superstars to appear for lower fees.
Jeff Bridges plays a shady priest with a bad memory; Jon Hamm is an FBI agent posing as a smarmy southern vacuum salesman; Dakota Johnson is a troubled runaway; Darlene Sweet is a traveling soul singer; and Chris Hemsworth -- it’d be a spoiler to explain his role, but know that he's never wearing a shirt and is more twisted than you’ve ever seen him before.
The stars pair off for much of the film (along with some stand-out supporting actors) and much of their backstory is explained in flashbacks to years earlier, though the significance of these long rewinds isn’t always apparent at first. No one who shows up at the El Royale, a beaten up motel that has seen better days, is in very good shape; everyone’s either running from or desperately looking for something.
There is money at stake, as well as freedom, both literally and figuratively; the rooms at the El Royale are all monitored by phone taps and double-sided mirrors, so no one can escape.
The country is burning -- we see Nixon on TV talking about guerrilla warfare in the thick of Vietnam -- and the era of peace and love, if it ever really existed, has been extinguished. The Manson murders -- the subject of Tarantino’s next flick -- must linger heavy on the minds of everyone here; even Hamm, as the straight-laced agent, seems haunted by something and unwilling to simply pursue the mysterious mission laid out for him by J. Edgar Hoover himself.
There’s not any great moral lesson here, except that it’s hard to run away from your problems for very long. But you probably aren’t going to a movie like "Bad Times at the El Royale" looking to be spiritually nourished, and if you are mostly looking for an immersive experience in a well-dressed set with performances by some top actors getting to stretch themselves (especially Hemsworth), you should have a good enough time.