When Better Call Saul was announced, my initial concerns were promptly squashed by how creator Vince Gilligan managed to expand on the world of Breaking Bad without ever once sacrificing the integrity of his previous work. So, I went into El Camino trusting wholly that Gilligan would produce a meaningful expansion of the original show’s ambiguous final moments, but I walked away from the movie feeling like the well finally ran dry. El Camino feels so desperate to shower us in fan service that it never quite finds a way to successfully offer impactful closure in the process.
El Camino picks up with Jesse Pinkman – played here again by Emmy Award winner Aaron Paul – directly after the events of the show’s finale. His nail-biting escape from the neo-Nazis that imprisoned him during the latter half of the final season hasn’t led to true freedom, and with law enforcement actively seeking him, he’s feeling more trapped than ever. Taking place over seemingly just a few short days, El Camino’s briskly-paced story follows Jesse’s attempt to face the demons of his past and chart a new path forward.
Breaking Bad’s five-season run was always first and foremost a character study of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and his ever-expanding god complex. While the show made good use of Jesse as the perpetual victim of Walter’s narcissism and manipulation, he never had the same commanding screen presence of Heisenberg, acting more as a mirror of the atrocities happening to and around him. This made him a sympathetic character in later seasons of the show, but as neither a hero nor villain, Jesse only worked so well because he was a pawn caught up in something larger than his character.
El Camino attempts to bring Jesse front and center, but without the looming fear of the show’s ultimate anti-hero, there’s just nothing about Jesse’s by the numbers “man on the run” tale that feels fresh or rewarding to watch. Where Breaking Bad layered on intricate slow-burn puzzles for the viewer to unravel leading up to its season finales, El Camino’s story has been told dozens of times in better, more original movies. There’s no overarching villains left to tackle, no mysteries to solve, and no last-minute “aha!” moments to elevate the film beyond its genre clichés.
That’s not to say that El Camino is a bad film, however – Breaking Bad just set the bar so high, and this follow-up never yields the same kind of trepidation and Shakespearean profundity of the show. There are glimpses of greatness in scenes where we’re forced to relive Jesse’s captivity once again, and Paul’s unrelenting believability and dedication to the character hasn’t waned in the years since the show ended. Gilligan’s trademark cinematography is on display here too with his wide angle Albuquerque time-lapses and his perfectly-framed POV scenes, though he leans less on his usual lingering, enigmatic shots so as to tell a full story in a short period of time.
But it’s damning that El Camino just doesn’t have enough content to fill a full two hours of film to begin with. It falls back on an endless onslaught of cameos that begin to feel superfluous as it becomes clear that Gilligan has forgotten how to conserve his ammo, so to speak, leaving the entire movie feeling like a masturbatory nostalgia trip.
The comedic relief of series mainstays Skinny Pete and Badger admittedly provides much-needed levity to the first third of the film, but it’s Jesse’s former captor and caretaker, Todd (Jesse Plemons), who takes up the majority of the time in these flashbacks. And though his presence is as chilling as ever, his noticeable weight gain paired with Jesse’s visible aging causes an unfortunate break in immersion throughout the movie.
These extended looks back feel forced into the film for padding and rarely offer meaningful backstory that couldn’t already be inferred, and they only further drive home the fact that even Gilligan must’ve known Jesse’s story itself just wouldn’t be very compelling on its own. He clearly wasn’t sure how best to spin such a thin plot into a feature film without filler, and despite Paul and the supporting cast doing the best they could with a barebones script, El Camino’s unnecessary extension to Jesse Pinkman’s story drowns beneath its sea of fan service and familiar design.
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Replacing the show's intrigue with a rotating wheel of excessive cameos and formulaic writing, El Camino is little more than a disposable entry in the Breaking Bad canon.
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