‘El Camino’ Will Appease Die-Hard ‘Breaking Bad’ Fans but Does Little More Than Entertain
AMC’s “Breaking Bad” ended with Jesse Pinkman’s (Aaron Paul) high school chemistry teacher, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), breaking his former student, and drug empire business partner, out of a suburban jail cell where he was enslaved to cook premium crystal meth. After liberating the man that helped him provide financial security for his family — at the expense of his ethical humanity — White died on the scene, but Pinkman rode off through a chain-link fence and into the night. Netflix’s “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” picks up Jesse Pinkman’s story immediately where the final episode left off.
Like the show sometimes did, “El Camino” begins with a cold open flashback. Jesse stands with his old mentor and associate Mike (Jonathan Banks) beside a body of water, contemplating what to do about their situation. From the dialog, viewers of the show will soon be able to tell that this scene occurs near the end of the series, when both men had made enough money off Walter’s product to get out of the business when the getting was good. The aging muscle asks Jesse what his plans are. Move to Alaska and “put things right,” he tells him. “Sorry, kid. That’s the one thing you can never do,” Mike candidly says, referring of course to all the dead bodies, including a few of Jesse’s loved ones, that have been buried in the desert thanks to their meth dealings.
The film then cuts back to almost the exact moment viewers left Jesse at the ending of the series, speeding down New Mexico’s streets, finally free. He doesn’t even get more than a mile before an all too familiar set of flashing red and blue lights come hightailing down the road in his direction. Bearded and ragged, having been holed up for months on end, Jesse knocks on his old friend Skinny Pete’s (Charles Baker) door, needing assistance from him and their buddy Badger (Matt Jones). After the delinquent duo help him start his getaway, the rest of “El Camino” entails of Jesse desperately trying to make his way out of town and leave the criminal life behind, for good; of course a series of escalating misadventures make that quite difficult, obstacles and new enemies thwarting him in every which way.
“El Camino” is sleek, full of trademark “Breaking Bad” tension games of cat and mouse between Vince Gilligan’s crooked lawmen and lowlife outlaws, but not much else. Breaking Bad super fans will surely have a good time with it, but people expecting something that truly resembles what the title promises, “A Breaking Bad Movie,” will likely be severely disappointed. “El Camino” has a plot that’s about as empty as a fully deflated hot air balloon and it’s really nothing more than a tacked on last chapter without much substance in the form of a lesser Safdie brothers adrenaline rush.
You can’t really describe the film as an elongated chase scene because the action flow is constantly being interrupted by flashback interlude snippets. These begin as PTSD triggers that reveal Jesse’s fragile state but soon turns into a minimalist side story involving his old buddy Todd (Jesse Plemons), which ultimately functions as plot padding backstory that also lets Gilligan pepper in exposition that builds to planted pay-offs. Plemons dials up the creep factor as a child murdering sociopath who was raised on a Neo-Nazi farm, but, given as that the viewer knows that his character is dead — even with his discomfortingly calm nature that’s always lingering — he doesn’t fit the role of a functional antagonist.
“El Camino” tries to make up for having a big bad missing from the proceeds, as pitting Walter and Jesse against a fearsome enemy (whether it be Tuco, Gus Fring, or each other) was one of the things the show did best. Gilligan does something odd to try and alleviate the issue at hand — the fact that Jesse doesn’t really have any enemies left; he slowly sets up a figure for Jesse to have legitimate beef with, but compared to what’s come before on the series, the character just doesn’t cut it as a villain. To further spotlight the law and order binary, Gilligan seems hellbent on sprinkling as many details that scream “Western” on screen as possible, even having the characters reference the genre, as they did when the crew robbed a train “like Jesse James” back in the show’s heyday. He’s really made more of a neo-noir thriller here, especially considering how interwoven memory is into the film’s fabric, but “El Camino’s” red credits won’t let you forget what genre the Sergio Leone inspired show loves most.
One of the things “Breaking Bad” always seemed to have a keen handle on was its confident eye and ear for visual intensity. For the most part, that hasn’t changed. Although, “El Camino,” arguably feels less cinematic than several of the show’s strongest episodes (the ones directed by Rian Johnson, most notable). Add on to this fact, the fact that regular cinematographer Michael Slovis — who perfected the wide-angle heavy look that would come to define the series, visually — did not work on the sequel film, as he has since moved on to directing TV himself. Gilligan arguably takes the somewhat obvious approach by electing to shoot his movie in scope, a choice that is supposed to make the shots look more “cinematic,” but squeezes the frame, flattening the depth of field, lessening the strengths of what made the show’s stand-out cinematography expressly iconic and unique in the first place.
It really is a bit of a stretch to call “El Camino” a “Breaking Bad Movie” but it’s sharply made for what it is and easily ingestible home entertainment that fans of the show should enjoy. Early on, an extremely strange, almost meta, editing joke, pokes fun at home viewers perhaps being concerned with production design quality, and it doesn’t seem like an accident. There is a clever gag where Jesse finds himself always using the phonebook to avoid using trackable tech, but all these small moments also highlight how little actually happens in the film. Before the movie plays, Netflix rolls a 3 minute “Breaking Bad” recap, effectively conceding that “El Camino” can’t stand on its own two legs as a narrative; really, it’s not much more than an extended epilogue, one that brings much of the flavor and atmosphere that made the series so thrilling, but lacking all the depth that made it a peak-TV classic.
“El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” begins streaming Friday Oct. 11 on Netflix.