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Past Time for “Bad Times at the El Royale”

El Royale!

The Don. The Dude. The Diva.

For some reason I had a heck of a time trying to keep the name of Bad Times at the El Royale straight my head. On the way to the theater, I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t called Bad Times at the El Diablo. Then I stepped up to the cashier and asked for tickets to Bad Times at the El Dorado. Before setting up this entry, I had to double-check and remind myself it also wasn’t Bad Times at the El Rodeo, though that might make an intriguing sequel in which the survivors step fully into California for an upper-class shopping trip that goes horribly awry.

Until that worthy successor to this very entertaining film arrives, it’s El Royale all the way. El Royale, El Royale El Royale. I think I’ve got it now.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Once upon a time in the late ’60s there was a hotel called the El Dorado sitting squarely on the California/Nevada border, though its novelty is irrelevant after the first fifteen minutes. A flock of faces mostly familiar to us but strangers to each other all show up at the El Dorado on the same day for check-in without reservations. Everyone has their secrets. No one trusts each other. Most of them are right to be suspicious because for a lot of folks “the Summer of Love” was not how they’d describe their ’60s.

Crisp, crackling film film noir ensues as paths cross and opponents double-cross. Some secrets are revealed. Some aren’t. Bullets fly. Blood flows. Songs are sung. Comparisons to Tarantino come to mind, but it’s more like writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) simply shares a lot of the same inspirations and influences, though he explores them with less overindulgence. (Well, setting aside that 141-minute running time…which didn’t bother me, honestly.)

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Jeff Bridges arrives in priestly garb and with slight memory issues. Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm can’t stop with his happy huckstering even when he’s upset with poor customer service. A glowering Dakota Johnson (the Fifty Shades series) radiates short-fuse hostility. Later in the film come two more arrivals: Cailee Spaeny (the lead teen from Pacific Rim: Uprising) as a victim of sorts; and he-man Chris Hemsworth as a hunky, long-haired cult leader whose mellow ‘tude can’t mask a dangerous vibe (he’s definitely not Surfin’ Thor).

Rounding out the main cast are Tony Award Winner Cynthia Erivo in her first feature-film role, as a singer traveling with quite a few rugs in her car; and Lewis Pullman (son of Bill!) as the hotel’s gangly, sheepish caretaker and apparently its only staff member. Both are aces in their respective roles, full of surprises and worth keeping tabs on in the future.

Guests with only one or two scenes include Nick Offerman (Parks and Rec) as a key relative; Agent Carter‘s hard-working Shea Whigham (I’ve name-checked him in five previous film entries) as a doctor with bad news; Charles Halford (Matt Ryan’s mate Chas from Constantine) as a convict; and Jim O’Heir (Jerry from Parks and Rec!) as a club owner.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Everything and everyone and everywhere are made of secrets. The requisite undercover officer. The criminal with one last job. The one who cares. The one who’s tired of hurting. The feral one. The intellectually bankrupt one. The one who’s so messed up, even their secrets have secrets. Their goals are no less varied — money, sex, power, respect, rescue, redemption. Y’know, the usual.

In El Dorado, exploration and discovery are the best parts of the viewing experience through so many all-star performances. It’s tedious to have to write this vaguely about such a vividly realized work for so many paragraphs in a row, which is why this entry was squatting in my head for two months, and may not amount to much by the time I finish evicting it.

Nitpicking? Among Tarantino’s most unrivaled strengths is his knack for assembling a killer soundtrack out of off-kilter obscurities that skillfully synchronize with the scenes they accompany and form an cohesive, evocative album listening experience after the fact. El Dorado instead leans hard into classic Top 40 like 95% of all films out there with safe, corporate-approved playlists. Ms. Erivo’s voice is perfectly fine and elevates the song selections above some of their more well-known covers, and I’m sure the viewing majority is happy to be catered to, but it’s not my favorite approach to movie music. Your Mileage May Vary.

I’m reminded of the time I argued with our of our local comic-shop owners about the use of AC/DC in the Iron Man movies — Tony Stark the forward-thinking futurist, the trendsetter with accelerated vision and style…stuck on hackneyed classic rock? Was it supposed to be an ironic dichotomy? To me it reads like Hollywood keeping it predictable, if not outright Pavlovian. “Hey, viewers! You know this song, right? Smile and clap for happy overplayed song time!”

(On the other hand…maybe to recent generations some of these singles really are obscure today and aren’t racking up the Spotify or YouTube hit counts. Easy example: my son had never heard “You Can’t Hurry Love”, neither by the Supremes nor by Phil Collins. That was played everywhere ’round here in some form back in the day. I suppose I shouldn’t complain too loudly if El Dorado succeeds in compensating for the dearth of Motown in our public schools’ music-history classes.)

The only other part that bugged me was a minor subplot regarding a secret film whose contents are never explicitly shown or described using specific proper nouns, but by all unsubtle hints allegedly contains one of the most clichéd 1960s secret film subjects possible. It’s included largely for theme/motif purposes (America: Land of Secrets!) and barely affects anyone’s choices, but had me rolling my eyes just the same.

So what’s to like? Those twists and turns the characters don’t see coming, sometimes even when they’re the ones twisting and turning. That beautifully decorated and shot hotel. That awesome ensemble cast, particularly Hemsworth’s disturbing Big Bad, Bridges finding a different approach to elder-statesman folksiness, Hamm magnetic as always, and Erivo more than holding her own, even though her character is realistically underequipped for hard-boiled showdowns. Not all of El Dorado‘s guests check out intact, but their retro rabble-rousing makes for one heck of a wild night.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the El Segundo end credits, but you can stay and listen to Cynthia Erivo belting out Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming”, which works better for me because for some reason Indianapolis radio stations never overplayed the original way back when. Strictly speaking, to me it’s relatively obscure. Funny how that works, I know.

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2 responses

    • I know I shouldn’t let long running times bother me (anyone who likes Marvel movies, or for that matter anyone who sits through their frequently draggy Netflix shows, forfeits their privilege to complain), but with “El Royale” I honestly wouldn’t have minded spending a bit more time with it. At the very least I’d love to have seen and known more about Pullman’s character, one of the more complex of the bunch.

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