Movie Review: A fresh take on “Star Wars” makes the score “Rogue One” — “Force Awakens Zero”

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Now this is more like it.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” has fresh faces, fresh music, fresh tech and a fresh take on “Star Wars,” a rarity in this venerable franchise.

It’s almost wholly satisfying — witty, warm and entertaining — a film in which fatalism isn’t a joke, where pitiless death is doled out by Empire and Rebellion, where those deaths have weight and meaning, where suspense is genuine, even if we know that this other-point-of-view prequel will wind up with a very irked Darth Vader.

” Commander, tear this ship apart until you find those plans!”

It’s amazing how viewers can be drawn to the edge of their seats when you try for something novel, a tale more than a glib facsimile of “A New Hope.” Yes, that’s a shot at the dreary, predigested “The Force Awakens.” “Rogue” is the movie J.J. Abrams should have made.

As brisk as the editing and effects whiz Gareth “Monsters/Godzilla” Edwards’ direction might be, it’s the crackling script by Oscar-nominated screenwriters Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) and Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) that makes “Rogue One” take flight.

And a cast of brilliant role-players generates empathy, fear, inspiration and quiet mutters of “He/she is soooo cool” in scene after scene, fights and one-liners included.

There’s this new thing, code-named “Death Star,” that the Empire wants finished. It needs its master designer, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) for that. And Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, a good villain) is determined to find him.

Only Galen’s little girl, who lived with dad on work sites playing with Storm Trooper dolls, escapes. Jyn (Felicity Jones) grows up to be a tough, resourceful smuggler and thief. She’s The Hope of The Rebellion. Only she can talk a rogue warlord (Forest Whitaker) into helping her track down her WMD-building dad.

Her minder on this mission is the spy and assassin Cassian Andor (Diego Luna in hired killer mode). And he’s assisted by a re-purposed Imperial droid, drolly voiced by Allan Tudyck.

Their quest takes them to a holy city adjacent to all-important Imperial mines, where Jedi with no mission lounge about, bored religious fanatics with mad fighting skills.

George Lucas used the Akira Kurosawa samurai adventure “Hidden Fortress” as his model for “Star Wars.” “Rogue One” gets deeper into Ronin (samurai whose master is dead) movies with characters played by Wen Jiang and the great martial arts star Donnie Yen (“Ip Man,” “Hero”). Yen is Chirrut Îmwe, a “Star Wars” version of the famed Japanese character Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman.

yen2Chirrut perks up his ears, swings his staff and Storm Troopers go flying. He makes wisecracks as they do, even when he’s taken prisoner, a bag wrapped around his head.

“Are you KIDDING me? I am BLIND!”

Chirrut is the coolest “new” character in this universe since Yoda. Yen is given the funniest lines, but also the most soulful. He is Yoda in human form.

“I am with The Force. The Force is with me” is his mantra.

The guiding principle for this script is “Boba Fett.” He was the bounty hunter some fans latched onto in original trilogy, a ruthless mission-focused mercenary. Versions of that dark ethos ripple through this cast of characters. There’s no “phasers on stun” equivalent in “Rogue One.” Necks are snapped and even friendly informants and possible allies who “know too much” might be dispatched.

Edwards conjures up a fresh twist on a worn-out lived-in galaxy, where hardware is patched and kept running but never repainted, where military transport ships are as dangerous to their crews as to the enemy, and where no technology is OSHA compliant.

Jones makes a plucky, more believably capable heroine than the young Brit of “Force Awakens.” Mikkelsen’s perpetual Dane-on-the-verge-of-tears generates pathos works, and Riz Ahmed (“Nightcrawler”) stands out in the diverse cast as a tortured traitor to the Empire enlisted in the rebels’ mission.

But Forest Whitaker towers over them all, playing a broken, twisted true believer who has lost most of his limbs to The Cause and lost all interest in compassion and fair play — until Jyn shows up.

Here’s what doesn’t work. For all the new tech, new locations and attempts to freshen the story and give it new emotions, the action beats are pretty much identical to those of every other “Star Wars” movies, start to finish.

Melodramatic touches abound, but one or two in the third act just grate. In a movie where deaths have pathos and meaning, it cheapens the picture when you illogically have characters we’ve kissed-off come back for a curtain call. The “urgent” holographic message about the Death Star lacks urgency.

And the inclusion of characters in the fresh bloom of “New Hope” youth, achieved mostly by digital animation, is impressive — just not impressive enough to look “real.” Aliens animated into scenes is a great effect, but the skin tones, movements and facial expressions of animated human beings don’t have the spark of life. I don’t think “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board” would have had the same bite delivered by a digital Leia.

Those who swooned over “A Force Awakens” should be humbled by the novelty, humanity and surprises of “Rogue One.” This is how a script that varies the formula plays, this is what a diverse cast assembled based on talent and star power and not just checking off inclusion boxes on an EEO form looks like.

And this is what a story that back-engineers and then improves on the marvelous canned corn of George Lucas sounds like. How do you accept a future under tyranny, where the Imperial flag waves over an entire galaxy?

“It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.”

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Cast: Felicity Jones, Forest Whitaker, Diego Luna, Riz AhmedMads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelssohn, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Jimmy Smits. 

Credits:Directed by Gareth Edwards, script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. A Lucasfilm/Walt Disney release.

Running time: 2:13

 

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