Roush Review: Aaron Paul Breaks Bad in 'El Camino'

Matt Roush
Review Ben Rothstein/Netflix

When a beloved show wraps with what many consider an intensely satisfying ending, does it even make sense to go back for more? Many Breaking Bad fans would answer yes, because it wasn't ever just the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), milquetoast turned meth-making criminal mastermind, who went out in a hail of bullets — and antihero glory — in the 2013 series finale.

Breaking Bad was just as much the human tragicomedy of his sidekick and protégé, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, who won three supporting Emmys for the role to Cranston's four). This hapless punk, who both loved and loathed his mentor and was almost always invariably over his head amid the show's twisted schemes, somehow survived the climactic carnage orchestrated by Walt (who shielded his imprisoned colleague's body and took a presumably fatal slug). A liberated Jesse left the bloody mess behind, howling in tormented ecstasy from behind the wheel of an El Camino as he sped away into an uncertain future and Breaking Bad entered the annals of TV legend.

Six years later, creator Vince Gilligan revisits the story in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which not only reveals what happens next to Jesse but also sheds light on aspects of his dehumanizing imprisonment in the final season by creepily amoral Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and his Uncle Jack's (Michael Bowen) gnarly gang of white supremacists. Like Breaking Bad, the two-hour movie sequel is often darkly funny, harrowingly suspenseful, blending the mundane and menacing, the absurd and sinister, with a bleak yet humane wit.

But watching this also reminded me a bit of the recent Downton Abbey movie. It's likely to delight fans who've yearned to return to a memorable time and place — in this case, the sun-bleached New Mexico landscape — for new intrigues with old favorites. But it also feels slight by comparison with the original, feeling more like a longer-than-usual episode than a true or necessary event. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Just don't expect more.

'El Camino': Aaron Paul on His 'Easy' Return to 'Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman

'El Camino': Aaron Paul on His 'Easy' Return to 'Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman

The actor also emphasizes why fans should trust in the follow-up film after 2013's near-perfect finale.

Paul is, typically, terrific as the desperate fugitive, scarred and broken, an emotionally exhausted wreck as he hides from the authorities while relying on the kindness and cooperation of lowlifes and criminal elements, some familiar to Breaking Bad fans. Flashbacks interrupt the propulsive action, including a contemplative moment at the start of the film in which Jesse considers a hopeful future in which he would "Start over. Start fresh. Put things right." To which one of the show's most beloved characters informs him, "Sorry kid, that's the one thing that you could never do."

This isn't so much a redemption story as it is an escape thriller, and on those terms, it's a rousing success, as Jesse scrambles to get his hands on hidden loot (which prompts more grisly backstory) while escaping detection. If the bad guys he runs across aren't as memorable as those Walt wrangled with back in the day, the showdowns still pack a jolt. There's an innate decency to Jesse, who despite his soul-crushing misadventures still hesitates to take an innocent life, and you can't help rooting for him, even though the life he's running toward seems rather empty. Not unlike El Camino itself, which is fine as a rollicking ride, but unlike its source, isn't likely to linger in the memory much longer than it takes to roll the credits.

(Ben Rothstein/Netflix)

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Movie Premiere, Friday, October 11, Netflix