In case you missed it, pop culture has now eaten itself up to the 1990s - or, to be more precise, a generation raised on that decade's multiplex activity is now taking its first fledging steps in the TV and film business. Some will call the results recycling; to others, among them any true child of the Nineties, this is simply the circle of life. If we ever get round to a medium-budget reboot of those dreadful Anciano/Burdis films with Sadie Frost and Jude Law, then it might be time to shut the cinema down for good, but with Bad Times at the El Royale, writer-director Drew Goddard has had the not at all bad idea of revisiting a moment when Quentin Tarantino was in some way bearable. The title of this light-comic crime fresco carries distant echoes not just of Pulp Fiction's raw meat, but also 1995's partially forgotten Tarantino-starring Destiny Turns on the Radio; an alternative might have been Fourteen Rooms, its action being confined to a motel that is, as the saying goes, a character in itself. Established in the 1950s on the California-Nevada border to take advantage of the latter state's lax gambling laws, the El Royale has fallen into a state of considerable disrepair by the time the film passes through its monogrammed doors in the late 1960s, left with a twitchy dope fiend of a clerk (Lewis Pullman), and inhabited by a clientele who are either on the run, have no place better to go, or come bearing an excess of baggage. Like Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods, however, the El Royale isn't what it first appears. There are bugs in the telephones, rather than the mattresses; there are hidden back channels to be explored; and there is a bag of money buried under the floorboards, a feature that attracts tricky tourists in their droves. The rooms are black holes, basically: the guests have no idea what they're setting foot inside.
Yet just as the hotel has two faces - one looking eastwards, the other to the West - so too do the characters. The apparently kindly Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a Catholic priest introduced selflessly lending meek Motown back-up singer Cynthia Erivo a quarter for a cup of the El Royale's signature undrinkable coffee is the first individual to be glimpsed tearing up the carpets in search of the loot; a windswept new arrival (Dakota Johnson) dubbed a "peace-loving hippy" by condescending vacuum salesman Jon Hamm actually has an unconscious body in the trunk of her car, and even this proves unrepresentative. Hamm, too, is not what he seems - or, rather, he holds onto the same patrician handful of attitudes while juggling two hats. The revelations and switchbacks involved risk reducing Bad Times to Tarantino's flimsy-tinny brand of postmodern pastiche, yet there's an expansiveness here - in narrative, and in the film's peppy approach to its characters - which justifies the 140-minute running time, and Goddard uses smarts, as opposed to Tarantino's increasingly resistible smart-aleckry, to back that expansiveness up. (Among the film's other collateral victims: July's Hotel Artemis, which employed a similar MO - and found another Drew in the director's seat - but would now only look extra-cramped and B-movieish set next to this.)
Any writer-director who casts two members of the Parks & Recreation ensemble and one of the lost souls from The Good Place clearly grasps how best to inject human warmth into a dead-end locale and a potentially chilly conceit, yet Goddard also marshals these performers into unexpectedly winning partnerships and alliances: out of that lousy cup of joe, Bridges and Erivo pull one of the year's most enjoyable movie double-acts, although it is not untypical of Bad Times that it should first involve her smashing him round the head with a wine bottle. Crucially - and unlike the monoglot Tarantino - he writes very different voices for his characters (choice moment: Bridges' oldtimer response upon hearing the first bars of Deep Purple's "Hush", namely "It's, uh... it's not for me"), and displays a restraint you perhaps wouldn't expect from the writer-director of a two hour twenty-minute feature. I dread to think what QT would have done with the El Royale's built-in peep show feature; though there is what the BBFC defines as strong violence here, it's just brief enough to still be shocking, and never leered over. Indeed, the characters who display the most swaggering or controlling attitudes towards women tend to be the ones who come off worst from their stay in these parts: Erivo's "I'd rather sit here and listen to the rain" will surely be used in times ahead to shut down any number of arguments online and in real life.
That possibly makes Bad Times sound like a morality play, and there is an element of theatricality about it, never more so than in the final act, when the survivors are gathered in the one spot. Yet Goddard elevates even his most prosaic scenes by making wise, witty, affirmative choices - the choices of a sentient adult, rather than the adolescent nihilist Tarantino never had to develop beyond under Harvey Weinstein's protection. You can almost imagine the latter making some of these choices: layering on a jukebox-worth of prime 60s platters - fresh as the afternoon they were recorded, sincere enough to keep glib irony at bay - for one. Yet Tarantino would never have had the nous to invite Erivo to break into "You Can't Hurry Love" as Goddard does at one point, a development that at once serves a plot purpose (it covers Bridges' noisier excavations), showcases the remarkable pipes of an emergent Broadway star, and offers an editorial mission statement as the film approaches the two-hour mark, with a further half-hour to go. (The same applies to Erivo's closing-credits cover of "Hold On, I'm Coming": unlike certain filmmakers, Goddard knows when he's going on a bit - but also that he has a yarn worth spinning out.) That the film should have ended up a one-week wonder on UK screens is no fault of its own: most suits, critics and audiences won't have encountered a properly big, properly starry, properly accomplished multiplex picture like this in decades, so it's no surprise they had very little idea how to react to it. The film's a gem; the industry around it remains as dysfunctional as ever.
Bad Times at the El Royale is now playing in selected cinemas.