“El Camino” rewards fans of “Breaking Bad”

Collin Schopp

There are occasionally television shows that capture a cultural zeitgeist. Recently, Game of Thrones had viewers that hadn’t opened a fantasy novel in their life glued to the exploits of the “Mother of Dragons.”
One of the first shows to generate such a buzz was HBO’s “The Sopranos.” The series broke records with upwards of 13 millions viewers for its fourth season premiere and, in June 2007, finished with one of the most divisive series finales to ever air. The serialized and intricate plot of the show, along with the allure of its dark anti-hero driven themes, left a vacuum that America’s viewing public has demanded full ever since. Enter “Breaking Bad,” premiering less than a year later on AMC.
At this point, I should mention this review will include spoilers for the entirety of “Breaking Bad.” I also highly recommend that you go back and watch the show if you somehow haven’t yet seen this piece of television canon.
Walter White was the perfect character to continue America’s new fascination with antiheroes. The elevator pitch — high school science teacher learns he has a terminal illness and decides to become a meth dealer — is intriguing on its own. It’s a simple premise with a wild amount of possibilities.
As Bryan Cranston’s Walter becomes less and less sympathetic, it could be argued that Jesse Pinkman, played by a charming and slovenly Aaron Paul, remains the moral heart of the show. It’s that likability that made it such a blow to see Jesse suffer at the hands of Neo-Nazis and be left broken and on the run in the series’s finale. Now, series creator Vince Gilligan has penned a continuation to put a nice bow on the story of everyone’s favorite teenage television delinquent.
“El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” picks up right where the series left off. A freed Jesse flees the  scene of Walter’s and many Neo-Nazis’ deaths in a stolen El Camino. The movie flies by quickly in a whirlwind hour and a half of police chases, fan favorites Badger and Skinny Pete and standoffs as Jesse searches desperately for a new start.
Along with Jesse’s flight, flashbacks are laced throughout the film, giving Bryan Cranston and the excellent Jonathon Banks an opportunity to reprise their roles. The main focus of the flashbacks is an errand that Jesse runs with Neo-Nazi Todd, played cold and distant by Jesse Plemons.
The stories run concurrently, as details remembered in flashbacks help out Jesse in the present. It’s a kinetic way to present the stories and helps the movie avoid losing momentum in the flashback sequences. Some of the flashbacks, especially those that take place while Jesse is a captive, are viscerally upsetting and give a clear ramp from Jesse’s laid back attitude in the series to his all-business demeanor in the film.
The score has the same tense, western twang of the series, and the cinematography is serviceable, often reminiscent of the show, itself. Paul is clearly very comfortable as Jesse, as the other actors are in their familiar characters, and all the performances are fun to watch.
Despite these many virtues, El Camino has a few major flaws. The breakneck plot is engaging, but by the end it seems very straightforward. It certainly gives fans more time with Jesse Pinkman, but it doesn’t do much to build past his role in the original show.
This brings me to its other major flaw. I can’t imagine recommending this movie to anyone who hasn’t seen the entirety of “Breaking Bad.” As a fan of the series, I enjoyed the callbacks and returning characters, but the majority of the movie would mean very little to someone who didn’t have the context. This makes the movie seem, mostly, like nothing more than a well-done attempt to finish a story the director felt was left unfinished. As Mike tells Jesse about retroactively putting things right in a flashback sequence: “Sorry, kid. That’s the one thing you can never do.”
“El Camino: The Breaking Bad Movie” is a well-shot, well-acted, compelling film, but its barebones plot and heavy reliance on callbacks to the show make it hard to recommend as a standalone film, much less to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the source material. For these reasons, I give “El Camino” 3 out of 5 Observe-bears.