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'Bad Times at the El Royale' review: Vivid and entertaining, yet never truly engrossing

Dakota Johnson stars in "Bad Times at

Dakota Johnson stars in "Bad Times at  the El Royale." Credit: 20th Century Fox/Kimberley French

PLOT Six guests and a receptionist spend an eventful night at a strange hotel.

CAST Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson

RATED R (strong violence and language)


BOTTOM LINE Vivid and entertaining, yet never truly engrossing.

The good news about “Bad Times at the El Royale,” Drew Goddard’s action-driven period piece, is that it checks just about every box a moviegoer could want. Fast pace, great cast, roller-coaster plot, fabulous production — it’s all here. Even as “Bad Times” whips your attention back and forth in highly entertaining ways, though, it all feels too familiar, like an echo of favorite movies gone by.

The year is 1969 and the setting is the El Royale, a tucked-away hotel that improbably and delightfully straddles California and Nevada. On an otherwise dead-quiet night, the mousy desk clerk, Miles (Lewis Pullman), finds himself hosting some very odd guests: Plaid-clad salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), hard-luck soul singer Darlene Sweet (an impressive Cynthia Erivo) and kindly old Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges, excellent as always). An aloof hippie chick, Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), is the last to check in, though the last to arrive will be Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a charismatic cult leader looking for a lost “Family” member.

The less revealed about the plot the better, but few of these characters are who they seem — and that goes for the hotel, too. In many ways, “Bad Times” is a fine follow-up to “The Cabin in the Woods,” Goddard’s mischievous mind warp from 2012. That film’s production designer, Martin Whist, proves to be this film’s secret hero. His El Royale, constructed from scratch, is a stunner — a marvelous bricolage of late-period Americana, with cafeteria vending machines, suburban stonework, dark woodwork and stuffed wildlife.

It’s hard to shake the feeling, though, that we are not in the 1960s but the 1990s. That’s when Goddard’s generation of hopeful filmmakers fell under the spell of Quentin Tarantino. Many a director since has cribbed from a Tarantino film, but Goddard here borrows from several: musical cues from “Reservoir Dogs,” a time-shifting narrative from “Pulp Fiction,” the period-piece fetishism of “Grindhouse,” an off-the-highway locale that recalls “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.” In fact, Goddard steals from a movie Tarantino hasn’t even made yet: his story about Sharon Tate, the actress murdered by the Manson Family in 1969.

“Bad Times” is a good time, for the most part, but it’s built primarily on style. Save for Bridges’ heart-tugging Father Flynn, the characters don’t leave an imprint. When the movie’s over, you’ll simply check out and be on your way.

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