Much as its titular vehicle is frozen between truck and sedan, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie finds itself firmly wedged between coup and curiosity. Breaking Bad has now been off the air longer than it initially ran, nay galloped on AMC across five seasons of vice-grip tension, visual virility and vibrant character study. (Some spoilers for the series below.)
We know what became of the series’ protagonist, Walter White (Bryan Cranston). The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has returned to write and direct a coda of closure for Walter’s protege, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) — last seen maniacally speeding off into the night behind an El Camino’s wheel, after Walter freed him from the clutches of his captors. El Camino splits its time between the urgent now of Jesse on the run as an accomplice to the largest methamphetamine manufacturing scheme in American history and flashbacks to unseen moments set during the series’ timeline.
El Camino is presented as a Netflix Original Film, but even the most casual Breaking Bad fans will pinpoint how it’s plotted and paced like a pair of episodes; you can tell, at the 58-minute mark, where Gilligan’s executive producer-credit would smash-cut onto the screen as part of the regular series. And although there is definite elation to again engage with these colorful characters who survived Breaking Bad (or not), El Camino sometimes falls prey to the reason why so many of these peak-TV resurrections feel perfunctory.
“I was thinking of Easter eggs,” quips villainous Todd (Jesse Plemons) in an extended flashback where he grants Jesse furlough from his subterranean prison only to task him for gruesome manual labor. Todd is referring to his apartment’s pastel palette. Gilligan is thinking of more culturally colloquial Easter eggs, peppering his movie’s perimeter with callback or cameo prizes of varying value. Indeed, there are entirely too many near the end — including one whose long, silent setup seems primed for people to get their bearings after oohing and aahing.
El Camino’s storytelling gears are also sometimes stuck between nostalgia and momentum; victory laps, it seems, suffer some of the same maladies as prequels. As welcome as Plemons always is, do we really need to see this much more of Todd’s soft-rock sadism? Is there anything interesting about an assemblage of new violent thugs Jesse must confront in the present day? They factor into a standoff that feels like a cheeky nod to long-ago rumors that Paul would play Eddie Dean in an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.
At least there’s Charles Baker as El Camino’s stealth MVP, reprising his role as Jesse’s friend Skinny Pete. There’s a sweetness in Pete’s encouragement of Jesse and empathy for a pal trying to exorcise his demons. But Pete also knows when to pivot toward his inherently shady nature; a fully charged burner phone and triple-tiered plan to help Jesse vamoose are Pete’s equivalent of piping-hot soup and a cozy blanket.
The film’s strongest moments embrace that plateau of uncertainty, such as when Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) tells Jesse (in another flashback) that starting fresh doesn’t mean the same as putting things right. Certainly, El Camino offers yet a fine showcase for Paul, who won three Emmys for his work on the series, to realize there are some wheelchair-mounted bells that can’t be unrung. In one particularly affecting moment — during which Jesse regards some familiar faces on a TV news report — Paul’s subtle facial shifts convey the unnavigable distance his choices have created.
Such moments are enough to make you wish El Camino had just let Jesse’s legacy play out without a barrage of familiar faces. Gilligan’s poetically poignant spin on the classic-noir template of Point Blank is certainly enjoyable. But it’s kind of a bummer to see that even something as watershed as Breaking Bad can, in a way, be converted into a hangout show.