El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie ★★★★½

January 20th 2008 on the US cable channel AMC. In the desert, a pair of beige trousers (pants for my American readers) descended from the sky, only to be ran over by a middle-aged man sporting tighty-whiteys and a gas mask. We were glued to our seats, unable to take our eyes off the screen, as we were thrown straight into the middle of said man frantically driving away from the law in a Winnebago with a younger and unconscious guy laying in the seat next to him, also wearing a gas mask, as we then saw what else was in his van. Two dead bodies. What followed was one of the biggest pop-culture icons of our time. 

Breaking Bad.

Following one of the most cleverly constructed TV pilots in recent memory (maybe ever), people watched as the aforementioned man, Walter White, played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston, transformed from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to ruthless drug kingpin known as Heisenberg following a nasty stage 3 lung cancer diagnosis. As he teamed up with his former high school flunk Jesse Pinkman, played by the equally phenomenal Aaron Paul, we stared in awe and disgust for 62 episodes from January 20th 2008 to September 22nd 2013, as the already extremely fragile relationship between Walt and Jesse continued to crumble, and as Walt descended into becoming a shell of his former self. On September 22nd 2013, the series drew to a close, as the widely acclaimed final episode Felina premiered and ended the show in a way that satisfied most critics and audiences alike.

Fans debated for years what happened to Jesse post-Walt, wondering if we would ever find out from Gilligan himself, who was working on a prequel/spin-off show under the name Better Call Saul, which would follow Walt and Jesse’s criminal lawyer Saul Goodman 6 years prior to Breaking Bad, starting out as a struggling attorney in New Mexico and eventually becoming the titular motor mouthed money laundering smart ass criminal lawyer we all came to enjoy. What seemed like a pointless endeavour and easy cash grab (although almost everything that comes out of Hollywood, good or bad, is technically a cash grab) at first to try and cling onto the last breaths of air in the Breaking Badaverse (if that’s what we’re calling it) became one of the most critically acclaimed series in recent memory despite adopting a very different tone and pace to it’s predecessor, winning multiple Emmy’s and, at the time of me writing this, is currently at #100 on IMDb’s Top 250 TV shows of all time (BB’s at #5 if you’re curious).

Then on August 27th 2019, after Gilligan delayed BCS’s 5th season, he released the first trailer of a project he had been secretly working on, which was initially under the code name Greenbrier, but was revealed to be El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. Fans quickly became excited and had faith in Gilligan to live up to what came before, due to BCS taking a relatively goofy side character and developing him (and a few others from the previous show) into a fully fleshed out person. It made people realise that Gilligan knows what he’s doing, and he wouldn’t return to this universe unless he had a damn good idea for it. We’ve now seen that lightning can strike twice, but my question for this movie is: can it strike for a third time, or is it time for Gilligan to leave good alone?

Picking up right after the horrific things he had to see, hear and endure of the last four episodes, To’hajiilee, Ozymandias (my personal favourite TV episode of all time), Granite State and Felina, Jesse finds himself on the run from the cops in a Chevrolet El Camino (hence the title of the movie). With whatever money left, we follow him on his road to redemption, attempting to reconcile with the few people he has left in life before starting anew and (somewhat) moving on from the mental (and often physical) torture he was forced into by his co-workers around him.

There’s one question I feel many may have when it comes to this movie: can I watch it without having seen the show? Now, some may dismiss this question, but it’s not uncommon. I remember when T2 Trainspotting first came out and many were asking that, to which I’d personally say yes, and then there are sequels like Logan which completely stand on their own and some adore it without having seen the others. Hell, my favourite action movie of the decade is Mad Max: Fury Road and I’ve not properly seen any of the others (don’t lynch me please, I’m sorry). In this case though, I really don’t think you should watch it without the show, as even I who watched it all for the first time recently had the occasional bit of who’s who, though that didn’t last long.

I just want to get this out the way, Aaron Paul is absolutely mesmerising in this film as Jesse Pinkman. This is easily his most iconic role to date, and he sinks back into it with such ease, even though he hadn’t played the part in about 5-6 years between shooting the finale and this film. This is a much more mature and emotionally damaged Jesse, and he’s able to show some wide range from here and the show. Gone are most of the uses of “Yo” and his signature catchphrase “Bitch”. This is a rough, no nonsense and completely mentally broken portrayal of the same character as before, and if the Academy had any sense in them (which it’s clear that they don’t if the past few years are anything to go by), he’ll get nominated for Best Actor in this. Some may say it’s impossible, but I wouldn’t entirely rule it out yet, as one of last year’s big Academy and critical darlings was the film Roma, which is labelled as a Netflix exclusive despite a brief theatrical run, which is similar to this film’s circumstances.

The cinematography on display here is gorgeous. Marshall Adams does such a brilliant job at invoking the feeling of what came before, particularly with it’s use of montages, perspective shots from objects being used, low angle shots and timelapses, all of which bring back Gilligan’s shot composition style that feels very unique. However, whereas the show was shot mostly using classic film cameras, with only digitals being used for a lot of the director’s previously listed bag of tricks, this is shot entirely on digital, which I can imagine looks great in 4K, but really contributes to the visual storytelling in my opinion. See, in the show, it’s use of shooting mostly on film adds a lot to it, giving the whole product a grimy look as we take a peak into the seedy underbelly of the meth business. However, digital gives it a sharper and cleaner look, as it’s Jesse cleaning himself up and ready to move on from that life. I do have one problem with this technique, but I will come to that later.

One thing I was worried about at the beginning of this film was it’s use of flashbacks, as I was worried that they’d just be there as fan service or “member berries” as some might call them. While I can see how someone could view them as such, I actually felt like they added a lot to the film. While it is cool to see certain people back (I won’t say who, but trust me, if you’re a fan of the show like me, these scenes will put a melancholic smile on your face), it does, to me anyway, add things that I didn’t know I even wanted to the Breaking Bad lore and mythos. That’s all I’ll say on that part.

Before I move on, I just wanted to say that there is a recap before the film for people who may have not seen the show in a while, and it is truly incredible in terms of editing, music and bringing you up to speed with the whole thing. I know there’s a skip option on the recap but trust me, don’t, it’s worth it.

Now onto the negatives. They are minute, and some may even call it nitpicking because trust me and don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic film. I mentioned earlier how I loved the digital look as opposed to the film look, but I do have one small gripe with this. As mentioned earlier, there are a lot of flashbacks, and I almost wanted them to be shot on film as well, as it could just be my eyes deceiving me, but it looks as if they were shot on digital. I know it would’ve been harder, but I do think it would’ve added to it in scenes set during BB.

Also, I’m glad that they didn’t do any digital deaging to any of the actors with it’s measly $6m behind it, but Paul does look noticeably more physically mature, which I found distracting, mainly in the opening scene, considering it takes place presumably moments after the show. However, I luckily did get used to this quickly. On the other hand, I found another actor’s age during the flashbacks particularly distracting throughout the film, and I don’t wish to spoil it, but they do play a surprisingly large part in the film.

But, despite the few little problems I had with it, I loved El Camino. Is it the lightning in a bottle effect of BB? No, I wouldn’t say so at least. Did I find it as impactful as those last 4 episodes of BB? No, I didn’t. But I didn’t feel that’s what it was going for. It wasn’t the gut punch of something like Ozymandias, most things aren’t, but as a satisfying conclusion to one of my (and so many other’s) favourite characters in all of TV, it was well worth it. If you liked the open endedness of his arc in Felina, I personally wouldn’t watch this if I were you, but if you’re a completist like me who wants to see how it all plays out in Gilligan’s idea of how it would unfold “realistically”, then it was well worth the wait, and I believe he managed to strike for a third time, although a few may disagree with that.

I give El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie 4.5/5

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