A film review by Craig J. Koban October 20, 2019

EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE jjj

2019, No MPAA Rating, 122 mins.

 

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman  /  Charles Baker as Skinny Pete  /  Matt Jones as Badger Mayhew  /  Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut  /  Larry Hankin as Old Joe

Written and directed by Vince Gilligan

ORIGINAL FILM

The new Netflix original EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE serves as a sort of prequel, sort of sequel to the series finale of one of the greatest TV shows in history.  Of course, I'm referring to Vince Gilligan created AMC residing BREAKING BAD, which aired for five deeply memorable and tension filled seasons and concerned the financially struggling and cancer stricken high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who teamed up with one of his former students in Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to produce and sell crystal meth in order to pay for the former's ever increasing medical bills, and to also ensure that his family's economic future would be secure.   

The title of the show was ultimately telling ("breaking bad" is Southern slang for "raising hell" or turning to a life of crime).  The whole story arc concerned the mild mannered and initially well meaning Walter's transformation into the role of a villainous leader of a drug empire, which culminated tragically with - SPOILER WARNING - his death in the well regarded, but (in my opinion) somewhat anti-climatic September 29, 2013 series finale, but not before he liberated poor Jesse from drug dealing Nazis that were holding him prisoner.  The closing moments of this final episode showed the bruised, battered, and mentally ravaged Jesse speeding off in an El Camino to liberated freedom, with his future left open to viewer interpretation (Walter and Jesse' kidnappers were viscously murdered during a bloody mass shooting).  This, of course, takes us to EL CAMINO, which goes out of its way to answer the lingering question as to what happened to that screaming for joy Jesse after he cruised into the night six years ago.  Even though this Gilligan written and directed Netflix film doesn't feel entirely and creatively necessary to the BREAKING BAD experience (some shows and movies are better left compellingly ambiguous when they...well...end), but there's no denying that this is a dexterously directed and splendidly acted follow-up, and one that should definitely appease series die hards. 

Gilligan's script here is a deceptively lean and economical one, even though it takes some complex segues between various time chronologies.  EL CAMINO starts off literally after the final few minutes of the BREAKING BAD finale, as we see Jesse (as mentioned) escaping captivity, now having to deal with the limitless levels of trauma associated with that, not to mention nagging uncertainties about his future in terms of escaping the law.  Even though Jesse is free of his former partner Walter's criminal empire (and the clutches of those damn Nazi scum that enslaved him), the authorities are still hot on his trail for answers.  Jesse has one goal: getting the hell out of New Mexico and escaping all the way to Alaska in hopes of a new life away from all of this madness.  Predictably, Jesse faces many trials and tribulations along the way that threaten his physical and mental well being, all while reconnecting with many familiar faces from the past (courtesy of some well placed fan servicing cameos) as well as reflecting on all of his dreadful time in captivity. 

 

 

Jesse emerged as rousing fan favorite character among the legions of BREAKING BAD loyalists during the show's heyday, and EL CAMINO is a film that (a) feels stylistically and thematically faithful to its TV roots and (b) gives this persona a whole narrative solely dedicated to him.  That, and Gilligan's focus here is to show a journey of Jesse in a similar light to what he did with Walter, in his case showing a once naive teenager that was deeply manipulated by his partner and former friend becoming an empowered force for personal change that's grown damn tired of being a battered victim.  Basically, it's about Jesse becoming a self-actualized man, and Gilligan does this by navigating the tricky creative waters of having EL CAMINO jump freely back and forth from past to present to help paint a better and more realized portrait of this character's current predicament.  This isn't Gilligan's first foray into prequel territory (see AMC's BETTER CALL SAUL, serving as a preamble to the entire BREAKING BAD series), but his scripting here rarely feels like he's lazily returning to the creative well for inspiration.  There's legitimate intrigue to be had in seeing how Jesse has survived five seasons worth of criminal horrors and how he now struggles to move on, in ways only he can. 

Perhaps the finest and most endlessly compelling subplot is a recurring series of flashbacks that highlights the imprisoned Jesse's time with the soft spoken, yet utterly psychotic Todd (Jesse Plemons, who has always looked like a more portly Matt Damon clone to me).  Todd is shown to have nearly unbreakable stranglehold on Jesse (if he flees or attempts to flee, then Todd and his cronies will kill everyone left in his life that matter to him), which is driven to the forefront during EL CAMINO's best sections as he drags Jesse along with him back to his apartment in order for him to be of assistance with disposing of Todd's murdered housekeeper (don't worry, the madman promised him pizza supper as a treat).  It's a ghastly scene, made even more disturbing by the casual aura of nonchalance that Todd has in response to his victim (he sickeningly removes his own belt from the dead woman's throat - that he used to strangle her - and then puts it right back on his pants).  As they leave later Todd enthusiastically belts out "Sharing the Night Together" as Jesse slumps down in his seat in recoiled horror.  EL CAMINO reminds viewers of what a great villain Todd was in the original series and how utterly frightening he came off for just how simply he cast aside any remorse for murderous wrongdoing.  He's made all the more chilling by just how much calm and authoritative power he exerts over Jesse.   

I always thought that Gilligan had a solid cinematic eye as a craftsman on the TV series (BREAKING BAD was refreshingly shot on film, given it the grit and textured veneer of big screen efforts), and he shows in EL CAMINO (especially with more aesthetic latitude and a larger budget) what he's capable of.  BREAKING BAD always felt like a western in modern day garb, and much of that is duplicated here, in widescreen glory, especially in the way the director frames one stupendously tension filled gun standoff or how he juxtaposes his criminals against the large, sun drenched vistas of New Mexico.  Gilligan knows how to milk suspense when required, like in one bravura moment when Jesse faces off against what he thinks are Federal agents in an abandoned apartment hunt for some well hidden drug money.  My favorite scene in EL CAMINO is a quieter one, seeing Jesse making an impromptu visit to a small time vacuum repair shop, run by Ed (the great Robert Forster, who died a few weeks ago), who secretly may (or may not) be a man with a certain skill set that can help Jesse disappear forever...but only if he can cough up the $125,000 retainer fee.  Seeing Paul and Forster play verbal cat and mouse games is one of EL CAMINO's greatest pleasures, made all the more bitter sweet because the movie world has lost such a potently understated acting talent like Forster. 

Ironically, one of the sad misfortunes of screening EL CAMINO is watching Paul's work here, but not because he's awful in it.  No, it's displeasing in hindsight when one thinks about how Hollywood has utter squandered his abilities for so many years both during and post BREAKING BAD (NEED FOR SPEED, anyone?).  Paul was always rock solid on the series, but here he's required to fully and dramatically quarterback an entire film without the larger than life presence of the immortal Crantson looming large over him (the spirit of Walter still achingly permeates Jesse's post-captivity life).  When BREAKING BAD was in its infancy Paul looked so eternally youthful and spunky, whereas here he's so hauntingly withered that he looks like he's been through multiple hellish wars with scars (in various forms) visible.  Paul did win multiple and very deserving Emmys for his terrific work on the show, but in EL CAMINO he truly solidifies why Jesse is one of the entire franchise's most layered and richly complex characters.  That, and, yes, he's so damn good here in a tightly coiled performance of unmatched intensity that Hollywood really needs to step up to the plate and take notice. 

For as much as I enjoyed EL CAMINO, I certainly understand its harshest critics.  If you've never seen an episode of BREAKING BAD then this film will be utterly nonsensical and require a road map as your travel through it (this is not a standalone work that keeps you up to speed on the entire TV series' story; this is a film that - as much as I hate the moniker - is made for fans).  There's also a lot of cameos here (some of which I wouldn't dream of spoiling) that sometimes distract from moving the film joyously forward into untamed territory (that might be impossible to attain while using a flashback structure).  Lastly, the AMC series ending with Jesse's emancipated cries seemed pretty pitch perfect, leaving EL CAMINO coming off at times more like a dutiful reunion film than a thoroughly fascinating extension of BREAKING BAD's epic crime storyline.  This is less a sequel than it is a long epilogue, but it's such a well conceived and executed epilogue on most levels that I'm willing to forgive it for not seeming all that essential.  And BREAKING BAD devotees will undoubtedly eat this up.  I can easily see many of them joyously adding this to their Netlfix lists while shouting, "Yeeeeaaah, bitch.  SEQUEL!!!"       

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