'El Camino': The 'Breaking Bad' Sequel Gives Aaron Paul The Spotlight But Doesn't Go Anywhere [Review]

When we last saw Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), he was scarred, battered, and roaring a howl of pain and panic, driving away from the grimmest possible fate, as fast as he could, in an El Camino. That car provides the title for “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” Netflix’s new feature-length continuation of the beloved six-season television series, but not its modus operandi; while its use as a getaway car at the end of the series (and beginning of this film) is a high-speed, pedal-to-the-medal situation, the film itself is a pokey, introspective affair, a protracted curtain call that gives us one more look at many of our favorite characters, without actually going much of anywhere.

In fact, the top-secret, no-spoilers, state-secrets nature of Netflix’s run-up to the film’s debut seems, in retrospect, a little silly; there’s so little plot to speak of, one wonders why they went to such lengths to protect it. After a brief, opening flashback sequence, in which good ol’ Mike Ehrmantraut (the great Jonathan Banks) and our Jesse do some philosophizing about getting out of their dangerous situation to “start over, start fresh,” writer/director Vince Gilligan hard-cuts to Jesse’s screaming drive-away from the series finale, and picks up his escape – from the authorities, from criminal loose ends, from himself – at that point. 

Gilligan’s script employs a hopscotching chronology, following Jesse’s movements while filling in the blanks in his story that were skipped on the way to that finale (along with a few new scenes from earlier in his story). Old friends are trotted out for special appearances like “Love Boat” guest stars: Badger and Skinny Pete talk trash and help Jesse on his way, Old Joe shows up to help get rid of the getaway car… well, you get the idea, and no sense in spoiling too many of the reveals. 

But this is Paul’s show, and the supporting actor does indeed hold the screen here, again making a meal out of the character’s copious flaws and contradictions. He’s working outward from his feral, dialogue-light appearance on that last episode, keying in on how genuinely broken this young man would be after that period of forced labor. Ravenous, frightened, paranoid, and almost mute, he lets us see Jesse not only reconnect with the real world but rise to the occasion; the turns of the plot require him to spend a fair amount of time thinking on his feet – which was always Mr. White’s specialty. Jesse doesn’t always come out on top.

The supporting cast’s standout – and the member of that ensemble with the most screen time – is Jesse Plemons, returning as Todd and really leaning into that whole “banality of evil” thing. Plemons has proven, in role after role, pointedly adept at putting his entire body at work for the character; here, his blank face and beady eyes, coupled with the dumb-guy schtick and laser-focused specificity of his dull-bro conversation (“How ya like my bedroom? Pretty bitchin’ huh?”), provide an abundance of context for the rapacious brutality of his death at Jesse’s hands at the end of the series.  

Gilligan’s skills as a technical filmmaker grew through “Breaking Bad’s” original run, and have similarly expanded in the hiatus; he makes stylish and often striking use of the wide frame, and the film is tightly, sharply cut, full of unexpected juxtapositions and inventive montage work. He can milk a suspense beat to its limit and knows when to drop in a dollop of bleak, black comedy. If anything, his direction of “El Camino” is more impressive than his writing; the script has a few more split-second coincidences and questionable revelations than we expect from a scribe of this note. 

More importantly, it doesn’t ever mount much of a case for its own existence. The initial, irresistible narrative hook of “Breaking Bad” was that a good and mild-mannered man, driven by extreme circumstances and old-fashioned familial obligation, could transform into something quite unlike himself; the series justified its continuation by seeing exactly how much of a monster he could become. 

But the only real narrative motor for “El Camino,” our only matter of pressing interest, is leftover affection for its leading character. About two-thirds of the way in, I realized where the story was going to end up – and it frankly wasn’t anywhere I wouldn’t have assumed from the end of the series. So how urgent was it to underline what was clear, to any thinking viewer, to begin with? 

The film is undeniably entertaining, it’s fun to see these characters and creators again, and hey, who am I to begrudge them a victory lap? But ultimately, the contrast between the epilogue film and the source material is undeniable. “Breaking Bad” was a show defined by its momentum – always plowing forward, sometimes nimbly, sometimes like a tank. “El Camino,” on the other hand, is a double-back, comprised entirely of reprises, sidebars, epilogues, and footnotes. [B-]