As with many puzzle-box entertainments, Drew Goddard's Bad Times at the El Royale proves more satisfying in its teasing buildup than its eventual payoffs. Bad Times is a much better time in its mysterious middle, which tingles with darkly comic possibility, than when Goddard's cards are on the table. Turns out, he's trying to make the twistiest talky killer flick you ever came across on Cinemax in 1997. As the title hints, with that whiff of "royale with cheese," this is a Tarantinoid spree, complete with a chapter structure, surprise deaths, timeline convolutions, a vintage mixtape soundtrack and characters who are more gregarious than is advisable considering all the secrets they're holding. It's set as the Age of Aquarius withers into the '70s but also in one of those meta-noir '90s movie universes where everyone eventually winds up tied to a chair.
Bad Times opens with a priest (Jeff Bridges), an R&B singer (Cynthia Erivo) and a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm) walking into a hotel. The El Royale is a sleekly '60s lodge with Automat food service and a room where a bag of apparently great value has been hidden beneath the floorboards. Hamm's salesman rattles on in a Foghorn Leghorn accent, calling his luggage his accoutrements; Bridges' priest clearly isn't really a priest.
Turns out, most of these people aren't who they seem. Neither is Dakota Johnson's character, a swearing woman with a sports car who barges in and jolts the movie. The best scenes belong to Erivo, who brings a vital humanity to all the twists and killings. Unlike most of those '90s hitman comedies this resembles, Bad Times centers on a character worth caring for.