El Camino Review

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) Movie Review By John Walsh


El Camino

Director: Vince Gilligan
Writers: Vince Gilligan, Vince Gilligan (based on “Breaking Bad” by)
Stars: Aaron Paul, Jonathan Banks, Matt Jones

It’s been six long years since ‘Felina’ aired, bringing the journey of Walter White and co to an emotional conclusion. To say that Breaking Bad is one of the greatest television shows to have ever been created would be a fairly uncontentious argument, with the excellent spin-off Better Call Saul series only further enhancing the overall mysticism surrounding the ‘brand’ for lack of a better word. Vince Gilligan also did the seemingly impossible and remarkable job of bringing the whole thing to an unbearable crescendo, whilst simultaneously tying up the major characters arcs in a manner that felt, at the very least, satisfying for the ever burgeoning fan base at the time.

There is perhaps one exception to that nigh on perfect finale and that is the way Jesse (Aaron Paul) abruptly sped away in that magnificent El Camino of Todd’s, crashing through the gates and emotionally off of our screens. A sizeable proportion of viewers were left disappointed by the departure, with his final appearances on the show dominated by scenes of torture and emotional blackmail, many felt he deserved better. Sure, it was still decently handled, he finally meted out poetic justice upon his tormentor in chief Todd (Jesse Plemons) and even bowed out on an amicable terms with Walter, but after the series of emotional gut punches he suffered over the years, it felt a little underwhelming.

In fairness to Vince Gilligan, however, Breaking Bad was never supposed to be the Jesse Pinkman show. It was about Walter’s descent from middle class benevolence into the ruthless brutality of a drug kingpin. It was about showcasing the hidden potential for malevolence within us all. He created the aforementioned Better Call Saul to further flesh out the travails of Saul Goodman, giving the magnificent Bob Odenkirk ample opportunity to do his thing, whilst drawing fans back into the familiar setting of New Mexico and with the secretive arrival of El Camino, this time he’s doing the same with Aaron Paul.

It was with a heady mixture of caution and anticipation, though mostly the latter in truth, that I sat down to watch the next chapter of Jesse Pinkman. Netflix have a spotted history with original content, but when you have Vince Gilligan writing the script and helming the movie, there was never any danger that it would be anything other than brilliant. And brilliant it truly is.

The action picks up right from when the series finale ended, Jesse is screeching out the compound in the El Camino before he’s forced to swerve into a driveway to avoid the oncoming deluge of police cars that arrive even as Walter lies dying in the meth lab. He thinks quickly and hooks up with his two friends, Skinny (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt L. Jones), who seeing him in a terrible state, offer some temporary refuge and a means of incognito transportation that sets the events of the movie in motion. A fresher looking, shaved head and stubble sporting Jesse is ‘reborn’ the next day and sets off with a seeming plan to escape the clutches of the law.

He’s still a haunted man however and this is perfectly encapsulated by numerous flashback sequences. They act as a visual catalyst for Jesse, fuelling the decision and actions that follow in the days that transpire after his escape, but also allow the viewer to access to the depths he has plummeted during his captivity. It honestly could be the most intelligent mixture of flashbacks and present day imagery that I’ve seen utilised in many a year. It weaves flawlessly around Jesse’s horrible predicament, or should that be plural because the whole film is one big, horrible predicament, effectively visualising the extent of the emotional trauma inflicted upon him at the hands of Todd and his uncles white supremacist group of opportunistic goons.

We the audience should already be on his side, of course, but if for some idiotic reason you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, and please believe me when I say that you should, and decide to see this first as a potential precursor to doing so, then it will certainly make you empathise with him and subsequently enjoy the karma he dishes out to the remaining ‘bitches’ that remain of Todd’s extended group. It’s a tried and tested storytelling technique harnessed by Gilligan that we’ve seen utilised as recently as a few weeks back in Rambo: Last Blood, where the depravity of the antagonist is established early, setting up the final act payback. It made for a gratifying viewing experience with the latter and it does so again here.

Aaron Paul is a talented man that has made some poor choices over the last six years, never truly capitalising on the hype of his appearance in Breaking Bad. We’ve seen that the guy can act and he proves it again here. His character goes through the emotional ringer in around 120 minutes of running time, portraying all the heartache of a man that’s been kicked in the proverbial balls and who’s at his lowest ebb with ease. He confidently carries the movie with a very assured performance and you get the sense it’s a homecoming for the actor, like slipping into a perfectly broken in pair of Red Wings. Quite frankly, I wanted more of the performance, the story and the character. But sometimes less is more and maybe that’s the case here.

The other star turn in El Camino is Jesse Plemons. It feels like this guy has appeared in just about every Oscar nominated movie in the last five years and never seems to get the praise he deserves. He’s an incredible actor and I actually forgot how annoying his character was in the final season of the show. A sycophantic, Heisenberg wannabe with a psychotic nasty streak to boot. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed his interloping into the proceedings. The overwhelming majority of the flashbacks featured him and yet despite the permanent presence of manipulation and Stockholm Syndrome he tried his best to foster, there was actually a couple of dark comedic moments involving a corpse, him and Jesse that were a real standout. I’m not entirely sure how much new footage he shot or how much was unused from his stint on the show, but he’s by far the best of the rest in this movie.

I’m absolutely delighted to say too that Walt does make an appearance. I love Bryan Cranston and it would’ve felt odd not to have him in there, even if the lengthly scene was an archival, cast off from the first season. Gilligan clearly had it mind for a long time, perhaps even prior to writing the script and wanted it in there, which is good enough for me. I’ve seen criticism of it’s inclusion but it worked for me on two levels. For one, it highlighted the journey our protagonist has been on since that diner chat, how much he’s developed and matured in the ensuing years, but it also reaffirmed that Jesse wasn’t some idiot resigned to a perpetual life of crime. Even back then he had potential away from the drug game, which Walter astutely recognises.

I get the sense that Vince Gilligan himself was annoyed by the abrupt nature of Pinkman’s ending. I mean why else would he go out his way to make a two hour, direct continuation of the finale if not to right a perceived wrong? The heart of the story after all is that Jesse must deal with the demons of his past before he can find inner peace and start a new life in the wilderness of Alaska. Or maybe I’m just looking into things too much again? I do have previous for it. One things for sure though, El Camino is the Breaking Bad ‘sequel’ that fans wanted and it does offer another tantalising look into that world we were all transfixed by for years, whilst finally delivering proper emotional and fulfilling closure for one of its primary protagonists.

If you’re a fan of the show then it’s an absolute must watch.

Rating: A

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