Review: 'El Camino' picks up where 'Breaking Bad' left off

Netflix drama picks up the story of Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman and gives him a shot at redemption

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The last time we saw Jesse Pinkman, he was hysterically laughing and crying after fleeing the scene of the final bloodbath that closed out "Breaking Bad." 

What happens next is the territory of "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie," the durable feature-length Netflix drama that isn't so much a new beginning to the "Breaking Bad" saga as it is an addendum to the story. It fills in some of the gaps in Pinkman's story and what happened to him after he drove off into the night.  

Aaron Paul in "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie."

Pinkman's escape, crashing through a chain link fence at full speed in an El Camino, was the series' closest approximation of a happy ending.

That's because in many ways Pinkman — played by Aaron Paul, who won three Emmys for his role as the burnout who went on to cook meth with his high school chemistry teacher — was the heart of the series, which wrapped in 2013 after five seasons. With his soft eyes and gentle manner, Paul allowed viewers in and made them feel for the character and even root for him. 

Bryan Cranston's Walter White had done too much wrong to go forward. But Pinkman was a victim and an underdog, and even if he didn't exactly deserve a second shot, no one was going to argue if he was given one.

"El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie" gives him that second shot. 

"El Camino" flashes back just as much as it picks up Pinkman's story in the immediate aftermath of his escape. It isn't packed with fireworks: writer-director Vince Gilligan keeps the pace at a slow burn, like a long drag off a cigarette, framing the story as Pinkman's redemption tale.  

The film opens with a quick recap of events leading up to the "Breaking Bad" finale, a helpful TripTik for those who haven't revisited the series lately. We're reminded that before Walter's guns went a-blazin', Pinkman was held hostage, chained up, cooking meth for quiet psycho Todd (Jesse Plemons) and his uncle's gang of thugs. 

Plemons' Todd is back in flashback, as are a handful of other familiar faces from the series; a quick refresher on Robert Forster's character, Ed, certainly wouldn't hurt viewers. 

Gilligan, working with cinematographer Marshall Adams, captures some stunning desert photography, a hallmark of the series. He colors in the edges of his frames with the crooks, lowlifes and schemers that always made his series so vivid.

"El Camino" recreates the tone and feel of "Breaking Bad" so effectively that it's a wonder it wasn't shot at the same time and stuck in a vault until now. It's not as sharp as the series was at its best, however, and it takes a few narrative shortcuts the series would have made sure to plot out in more exacting fashion. 

Gilligan sees Pinkman as the outlaw hero of this Western, quite literally in one climactic scene. Pinkman was never a big picture thinker, and "El Camino" stays true to him by keeping things appropriately small scale. The key word in its title is that capital letter "A": This is a "Breaking Bad" movie, not the "Breaking Bad" movie. 

Does that mean there's more to come? Why not: "Breaking Bad" has proven to be fertile storytelling ground — "Better Call Saul" is soon to be entering its fifth season — and there's plenty of ground to cover with other characters (Gustavo Fring!), should Gilligan so choose.  

In that sense, "Breaking Bad" was already an ice cream sundae. Simply think of "El Camino" as the cherry on top. 

'El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie'


Rated TV-M: Violence, language, drug use, mature themes

Running time: 122 minutes