Most everyone who mattered in AMC’s unsurpassed drama “Breaking Bad” had been killed off by the 2013 finale – a closing episode that still stands as one of TV’s best.
There is no discernible reason the series should be followed by a film, other than placating series creator Vince Gilligan and fans who miss the world of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). But really, who among us, once dazzled by Heisenberg’s schemes, doesn’t miss Cranston tromping through scrub brush in his tighty whities or Paul smoking a bowl in a worn knit hat?
“Breaking Bad’s” finale was so incredibly good it seemed there was nothing left to do – unless it was making a stellar prequel called “Better Call Saul.” And that’s where Gilligan and the diminished cast should have walked away, just like the series’ nonplussed hitman, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks).
Unfortunately, “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” which premiered Friday on Netflix and will also screen this weekend in select theaters, picks up right where the series left off, challenging our fondest memories of White and Pinkman – hazmat suits come to mind – with an extended narrative in which the enigmatic half of the odd couple is gone.
The film opens as Pinkman puts the pedal to the metal, busting open the gates of the white supremacist compound where he was imprisoned, barreling down a dirt road into the wide open desert.
The engine is gunning. The adrenaline is flowing. And then, the tension drops. The story meanders. The film indulges in long, arty sequences that are wonderfully shot and staged, but sleepy, despite an implied intensity.
“El Camino” pulls off the open road only to park itself in the claustrophobic story of a confused young man with PTSD who wants to move on but is locked in a purgatory called Albuquerque. His recovery is as slow as the film’s pacing, which raises the question: Why name the movie after the fast, powerful muscle car that Pinkman gives away minutes into the story? What a sadistic Walter White move.
In the series, White was a brilliant but invisible high school chemistry teacher with untapped potential. Then he saw an opportunity in his below-average student, Pinkman, from whom he learned how to cook meth. White perfected the coveted formula for “Blue Sky,” and from there created an empire.
White and Pinkman were an ambivalent team, amplifying the worst and best in each other, the older mentor’s calculated wickedness playing against his guileless protigi’s compassion. That critical dynamic is absent in “El Camino,” which takes place following White’s death (he was killed freeing Pinkman from the white supremacist compound, but not before mowing down his captors).
Nothing and no one lights up the screen like Paul and Cranston did during the show’s five-season run. Maybe it’s not fair to expect such brilliance. Then again, it wasn’t a great decision to tack a new ending onto a powerful saga that paired working-class desperation with American ingenuity.
What’s left are the trials of the hapless former drug dealer and burner who has no one of import turn to for help. Plagued by flashbacks and terrified by what comes next, the wanted fugitive Pinkman spends a great deal of time hiding, fretting and bumping into minor characters from the series.
Fans may get a kick out of revisiting old haunts and reconnecting with familiar faces, at least one of whom made the jump from “Breaking Bad” to the brilliant spinoff, “Better Call Saul.” However, there aren’t enough of those reunions, at least with key figures, to gird a strong, compelling tale that connects past with present.
“El Camino” isn’t horrible, but it’s not commendable either, and given the legacy of “Breaking Bad,” mildly entertaining isn’t good enough.
Paul explained at the the premiere that the film was made because Gilligan had something more to say. Whatever that “something” is, it’s not driving this story. Neither is the classic Chevy. A shame on both counts.
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