After escaping from a gang of Neo Nazi drug dealers, former meth cook Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) goes on the run from the police – and his past – and he tries to escape New Mexico to a new identity and freedom.
Six years on from Breaking Bad’s explosive series finale, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is back. Last seen tearing away from Neo-Nazi captors in a stolen car, Jesse’s story picks up exactly where it left off. It’s an intense opening and sets up our expectations for a fast-paced thriller. However, in true Bad-verse fashion, director, screenwriter (and series creator) Vince Gilligan slows things right down with a slower-burning, measured narrative.
One of Gilligan’s gifts is his ability to draw drama out of innocuous scenes. One memorable Breaking Bad episode saw protagonist Walter White chase a fly around his lab for 45 minutes. Hardly ‘Golden Era’ television – but Gilligan, using regular flashbacks without the novelty wearing thin, can take a slow-paced story and pack it with tension. We see Gilligan’s intention from the start in El Camino as he throws a curve ball in the opening minutes when we expect a high-speed car chase and instead see Jesse hit the brakes and sneak into the darkness. It transforms the film in a single moment and subverts our expectations for a thriller. Instead the film focuses on completing Jesse’s character arc and tying up the series’ narrative loose ends. For lovers of the series (myself included), it’s glorious fan service with Gilligan and Paul back to their best. As a standalone film, it lacks intrigue.
One of the main issues with El Camino is that it lacks a lot of the elements needed to make a thriller taut. Aside from a handful of sequences (Jesse’s police stand-off halfway through the film is notable), there is little to build excitement. Jesse needs to avoid the police and escape New Mexico, which should have been enough to add a time-sensitive element of tension to the narrative. However, we rarely get the sense that the police are on to him, even when we establish that police had a tracer on his stolen car from the onset. This, coupled with the lack of noteworthy action sequences (one gunfight towards the end aside), leaves El Camino flat.
Gilligan does make things more interesting with his directing style, however. One notable time-lapse sequence features eight Jesses tearing through a house in search of hidden money – a unique way of communicating tension without any real action happening. Gilligan’s trademark showy style is also evident throughout, as are regular flashbacks to bring back old characters to fill in elements of the El Camino plot.
There were several moments of flat-tack fan servicing that did nothing to advance the plot or add to Jesse’s character arc. Bryan Cranston and Johnathan Banks both return as Walter White and Mike Ehrmantraut respectively without adding anything to the film other than a wry smile from viewers. There are a handful of other cameos from past characters too – in fact, there were hardly any new characters. This lack of world building furthers the feel for El Camino as a television special rather than a film of its own. Even Paul, who single-handedly forged a career from the series, seems stifled from trying anything new with the character in what was a solid but unremarkable lead performance.
For series fans, El Camino is a touching final send-off for a beloved character. For neutral viewers, there are other action films on Netflix that will get the pulse going a lot quicker.
Fans of the series will love stepping into the Bad-verse again – neutrals will find the action meandering. 6.5/10.