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The audacity of hope – ‘Rogue One’

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Remember the days when you waited years for a new “Star Wars” movie to arrive? When you waited so long that even when it wasn’t very good, you talked yourself into it because any new “Star Wars” was better than no new “Star Wars”?

Happily, those days appear to be behind us.

“Rogue One” is the second in what will no doubt become an ongoing stream of new “Star Wars” stories; with a studio behemoth like Disney in charge, we’ll keep getting them as long as we keep going to see them.

And if this one is any indication, we’re going to keep going. And going. And going.

“Rogue One,” subtitled “A Star Wars Story,” is an interesting addition to the canon. It’s partially a gap-bridger, tying the end of the prequel arc to the beginning of the original trilogy. It is steeped in the mythology and contains enough crossover characters to tie it all together. It provides a “who” and a “how” relating to “A New Hope” that lends newfound gravity to the proceedings.

But it’s more than that. It’s also a self-contained story, one whose internal stakes matter on their own as opposed to simply as a cog in a franchise-spanning narrative. Its tonal departures and thematic explorations make it a movie that easily stands alone.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, “Inferno”) is a troubled young woman, bearing a deep antipathy toward the Empire for tearing her family apart. Her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen, “Doctor Strange”) was once one of the Empire’s most gifted engineers; the sinister Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, “Una”) proves willing to do whatever it takes to ensure Galen’s cooperation.

As an adult, Jyn’s past returns to haunt her when she is coerced by the Rebel Alliance into helping locate her former guardian and fringe resistor Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, “Arrival”). Along with the rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, “The Bad Batch”) and his sidekick, the snide and superior reprogrammed Empire droid K2-SO (Alan Tudyk, “Moana”).

She soon learns that the result of her father’s labor is the planet-killing war machine known as the Death Star, but she also discovers that Galen had designed the weapon with an exploitable flaw – one that could utterly destroy it.

She, Cassian, K2-SO and a small team of others – notably former temple guardians Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny”) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang, “Gone with the Bullets”) – are tasked with tracking down and obtaining the blueprints of the machine and passing them along to Rebel forces. It’s just a ragtag bunch of rebels against the mighty Empire … but they have a powerful weapon as well.

Hope.

On paper, there’s something inherently problematic with a movie like “Rogue One” – you already know how the primary mission ultimately turns out if you’ve ever even started watching “Star Wars.” One would think that that knowledge would impact the experience of watching this film. And it does.

Just not the way you think.

What “Rogue One” does is create context. These plans are little more than a plot device in the original film, something to advance the narrative. Other than a throwaway line, we never really hear about how we got here. But now we know just what had to happen to enable the victories of the future. That knowledge actually casts a retroactive shadow over the events of the original trilogy in a way that feels welcome and well-earned.

(And just so you know – Vader totally shows up.)

It has become relatively common for blockbuster franchises to turn the keys over to relatively inexperienced directors; the results of the trend have been hit or miss. Gareth Edwards is a prime example of the phenomenon – he’s only got three feature credits to his name counting this one (including 2014’s “Godzilla,” itself intended as a franchise starter).

But he nails it.

Operating in the “Star Wars” universe is generally a delicate process; there’s a lot of pressure to stay true to preexisting styles and themes. But “Rogue One” is, in some ways, a special case – by its nature, it is a sort of cinematic connective tissue, filling a hole in the bigger picture. As such, it isn’t bound by so many conventions as something like “The Force Awakens.” And Edwards takes full advantage of that distinction – spiritually, this is absolutely a “Star Wars” movie, but specifically, it is its own story.

Ironically enough, this might be the best war movie in a franchise that carries the word right in its title. It is lived-in and grimy, with deeper feelings of danger than we’ve seen in many of the other installments.

In terms of performances, Felicity Jones leads the way. She’s precisely the sort of hero a film like this one needs – a flawed one, dealing with doubts and questions the whole way. We’ve seen flashes of steeliness from Jones over the years, but never has it been so effectively utilized. Diego Luna could have just checked the “charming rogue” box and been just fine, but instead, he lends Cassian a depth of nuance that is subtle and surprising. Whitaker and Mikkelsen are old pros, bringing commitment and gravitas to their respective performances. Yen and Jiang are also both exceptional, creating a powerful and respectful relationship tinged with just the slightest hint of buddy comedy. And Tudyk is great as K2-SO, putting his own spin on the standard droid-related vocal performance and stealing just about every scene he’s in.

“Rogue One” is far more than a mere filling-in of backstory. It is a full and engaging addition to the “Star Wars” canon, the sort of striking cinematic experience that – while different from the films that came before it – is reminiscent of the reasons we came to love the “Star Wars” in the first place. The day may come when oversaturation and the laws of diminishing returns catch up with this beloved franchise.

But that day is not today.

[5 out of 5] 

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