El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

“Only you can decide what’s best for you, Jesse.”

An epilogue, bitch! I didn't realize how much I needed this in my life.

If you're here, reading this review, you're probably a fan of Breaking Bad. If you're not a fan now, you're probably going to be. Either way, you've probably already seen the show's spinoff film, El Camino, by now. You've already formed your opinion on this surprise Netflix event. Nevertheless, we're gonna talk about it here.

Let me first say, I love Breaking Bad. It was something I encountered randomly on TV while flipping through channels one night and I became intrigued to see Bryan Cranston – who I'd become a fan of through comedy shows like Malcolm in the Middle, King of Queens, etc. – in what appeared to be a very dark and serious role. Needless to say, I quickly became wrapped up in this bizarre tale of a seemingly ordinary man's dance with darkness. But along the way, I became just as captivated by Aaron Paul's performance as Jesse, whom Cranston's character Walter blackmails into helping him cook meth.

This was a surprise even to me, since I was initially very annoyed by this character. Yet it soon became clear that, for all his immature wannabe-gangster posturing, Jesse had a heart of gold. That he was in over his head and being endlessly manipulated by Walter, someone he respected. And that, as Walt continued down his bloody path, Jesse would be dragged down with him.

Thankfully, as those who've seen the series know, Walt was decent enough to spare Jesse that fate in the end. Jesse got to walk away, to break free of everything holding him back, and ride off into the night to an uncertain future.

And honestly, I was content with leaving it at that. But many people, including series creator Vince Gilligan, agreed that there was surely more to Jesse's story than what we got in that last episode. As solid as the series finale was, it was one of the rare episodes where Jesse's role was rather minimal, at least until the last 15 minutes or so.

So this movie was a welcome surprise.

Six years after Breaking Bad went out in an unmatched blaze of glory, Aaron Paul and Vince Gilligan return to the night Walter White died. To tell the story of Jesse Pinkman's journey to freedom.

I like that this movie doesn't try to go too big. Ultimately, it is an escape movie; its tone and pace even reminded me a bit of John Carpenter's Escape From New York. It's a race against time, a fight for survival.

Jesse's predicament after fleeing the Neo-Nazi compound he was enslaved in was handled well. The cathartic getaway we last saw him embarking on grinds to a halt when he sees the police cavalry coming down the road. With Walter White dead along with the scumbags who stole his blue meth empire, Jesse is realistically the last person the authorities have to go after. As such, a manhunt for Heisenberg's partner in crime begins. Jesse takes shelter with his old friends Badger and Skinny Pete, cleans himself up, and resolves to get out of dodge before he is caught and put back in a cage for the rest of his life.

This isn't without its share of roadblocks. Despite its seemingly mundane backdrop, simple is not a word that should be associated with this world.

Whereas the show was primarily concerned with Walt's perspective and state of mind, El Camino is all about Jesse. What he's going through, what he's been through, who he has become as a result, and where he goes from here. This allows them to play it subtly and illustrate the impact Walter's actions have had even if they don't put too much emphasis on Walt himself. It also lets us see how far Jesse has come, from here to the start of the series. He's not the dumb punk he started out as. He's learned to use his head, to know when to be cautious and when to be bold. He musters all his nerve and wit while much of the trauma he endured in the show is still fresh.

I appreciate that, despite being an otherwise straightforward thriller, a lot of time is taken to examine the existential turmoil Jesse would naturally be experiencing. This was something the show reveled in, the psychology of its characters.

That's one of the things that struck me the most about this movie. Like I said, it is mostly an epilogue. Though it obviously works as a love letter to fans of the series, it stands on its own and works pretty well. It doesn't come off like it's pandering or trying too hard. They picked up right where they left off without it feeling forced. It still feels like the world of Breaking Bad, from its characters and setting to its style and atmosphere. Maybe it wasn't necessarily required, but it was a welcome return to a story I love and greatly respect.


Bits and Pieces:

* While this is certainly a treat for Breaking Bad fans, I doubt if it will have the same impact on people who have not watched the show.

* Some of the trailers had me worried they would play Jesse off as some kind of badass action hero. I'm thankful I was wrong. He's is as on edge as ever here, and it's just as believable as it was during the show. Which, of course, is not to say there aren't a few badass moments here and there.

* Unfortunately, Robert Forster, who played Ed the Vacuum Salesman, passed away on the same day that El Camino was released. I thought it was cool that Ed basically wound up being this franchise’s most successful criminal in the end. Cool, collected and all business.

* It was hard to obscure the passage of time since the series finale with a few of the returning characters. Jesse Plemons, for instance, is noticeably heavier than he was back when the show was on. However, the way they all slipped back into their old roles was so seamless that I find it unlikely most people will care too much about that.

* Todd's apartment was like him: normal enough at a glance, but actually quite creepy if you look long enough. The bland pink colored wallpaper, which Todd had done with Easter eggs in mind, looked more like the color of human flesh. Of course, he kept the tarantula that Drew Sharp, the boy he murdered, had found. But the most baffling was this custom-made snow globe in his room, full of red hearts instead of snow and featuring toy people in an image that appears to be Todd worshipping Lydia on a pedestal.

* Speaking of which, the scene where Jesse is tearing Todd's place apart in search of the money was prime Breaking Bad. The editing, the cinematography, the music. Masterful.

* Some were unimpressed by the antagonist character of Neil Kandy. I actually thought he made a good rival for Jesse, in particular. This is a man who, in many ways, represents the type of person Jesse would have been if he lacked any empathy and continued his life as an opportunistic petty criminal.

* Although I thoroughly enjoyed all the cameo appearances from the series, the two big stars here are undeniably Aaron Paul and Vince Gilligan. Paul slips right back into his old role like it was a custom-made glove, kindling all the same emotions we felt for Jesse Pinkman; he is electrifying in this movie. And Gilligan deserves equal credit for the way he was able to bring us right back to this story and make it feel so effortless, like the show never ended.

Quotes:

Badger: Apex!
Skinny Pete: I can’t apex more than I’m already apexing!

Old Joe: Yeah, I know who this is. At this point, who doesn’t?

Jesse: Yo, Skinny. Why're you doing all this?
Skinny Pete: Dude... you're my hero and shit.

Jesse: Look, these people have kept me in a concrete hole. I don’t even know what month it is. They made me watch when they… when they shot someone I—
Ed: If you believe you can pull on people’s heartstrings, you should take your chances with the police. From where I sit, you made your own luck. As did your former partner. As did your lawyer.

Jesse: What, like the wild west?
Neil: Yeah, like the wild west.

Jesse: Yeah, bitch!

I went back and forth on how to write this, not sure how much I should talk about and how much I should leave vague. It might not be one of my more detailed reviews, but with this I felt the need to tread lightly. Four out of five stolen vehicles.

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