[Screen It]


(2016) (Felicity Jones, Diego Luna) (PG-13)

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Sci-Fi: A ragtag group of rebels sets out to steal the plans for the Empire's most deadly weapon, the Death Star.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (and before the events of the very first "Star Wars" film), Jyn Erso (FELICITY JONES) is a young woman with a checkered criminal past. While being transported along with a few other prisoners, she's extracted by Rebel Alliance intelligence officer Captain Cassian Andor (DIEGO LUNA) and his reprogrammed imperial droid, K-2SO (voice of ALAN TUDYK). And that's because her father, Galen (MADS MIKKELSEN), has been working for Director Orson Krennic (BEN MENDELSOHN) in creating the Empire's most powerful weapon, the Death Star. And an imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (RIZ AHMED), has recently defected, reportedly with a message from Galen for Saw Ferrera (FOREST WHITAKER), an extremist rebel who served as Jyn's guardian when Krennic abducted her father and killed her mother.

The rebels believe that Jyn can lead them to Saw Ferrera and that ultimately could point them to Galen, a figure Capt. Andor has been ordered to assassinate in order to thwart the Death Star plans. Unaware of that order, Jyn initially wants nothing to do with the rebel alliance and only agrees to help Capt. Andor to get charges against her dropped. They eventually find Saw Ferrera, along with Bodhi Rook and are joined by blind warrior monk Chirrut Imwe (DONNIE YEN) who believes in the Force, and freelance assassin Baze Malbus (WEN JIANG) who does not, with all of them experiencing first-hand the destructive power of the Empire's new weapon.

When it's learned that Galen purposefully built a hidden flaw into the Death Star, Jyn, Capt. Andor and the others set out to steal the weapon's plans so that the rebel alliance can figure out how to destroy it.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
In what may be the cinema's most iconic opening, the beginning of "Star Wars" (a.k.a. "Episode IV - A New Hope") reads:

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy..."

Of course, we all know what followed in that 1977 film that initially spawned two sequels ("The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Return of the Jedi"), three prequels ("The Phantom Menace," "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith"), another sequel ("The Force Awakens" set after the 1983 "Jedi" installment), an animated movie and several animated TV series, comic books, novels, video games and plenty of toys.

Whew, with all of that, you'd think the franchise was in risk of overexposure, but as "Force Awakens" proved (with its $2 billion+ worldwide box office take) there doesn't seem to be a limit to the public appetite for most anything "Star Wars" related.

All of which brings us to another prequel that's likely to be yet another big hit. "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is directly referenced in the opening crawl listed above and is the first in a line of so-called anthology films in the "Star Wars" universe. As a cog in that overall line of movies, it works terrifically in tying Episode III and IV together, although it's set closer to the latter and most of its references -- and a few cameos and such -- are directly related to the very first Lucas film.

As a standalone pic (assuming you've never seen a previous SW film and wouldn't know a Jedi from an Ewok), it works quite well as a sci-fi based, wartime heist flick that really finds its footing and takes off in the third act once the pivotal plan is hatched and put into motion. It's also one of the most ruthless and daring entries in terms of who makes it out alive and who doesn't, although truth be told there isn't any room to squeeze in a sequel as Episode IV is ready to roll as soon as this film's end credits begin, so the point is mostly moot.

The first two acts -- as penned by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy and brought to the screen by director Gareth Edwards -- are all setup, albeit with infused action along the way. An introductory sequence (surprisingly minus the opening crawl we're so accustomed to seeing) features an Empire heavy (Ben Mendelsohn) arriving on a distant farm to bring back his former top engineer (Mads Mikkelsen) to work on a special weapon program (that, natch, turns out to be the Death Star). Things don't go well, a family member doesn't make it, and a young girl runs off to hide, only to be rescued later by a rebel extremist (Forest Whitaker).

Years later, that girl has grown up to be a common criminal by the name of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, following up on the welcome trend of female leads in the "Star Wars" universe started with Daisy Ridley in "The Force Awakens"). She's extracted by a rebel captain (Diego Luna) and his right-hand droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk and serving as something of a cross between C-3PO and Chewbacca -- assuming that furry character's growls were sarcasm) to find Whitaker's character in hopes of finding Mikkelsen's in hopes of taking the Empire's new weapon out of action.

Along the way, they're joined by a blind martial arts happy monk (Donnie Yen) and his more down to earth weapons happy friend (Jiang Wen), as well as a former Imperial fighter (Riz Ahmed) who's defected with a message from Jyn's father about the Death Star. And with the latter finally getting its big chance to be fired, the rest of the plot is set into motion as the film segues into a war pic (complete with a beach battle scene accompanied by aerial and space dogfighting) as mixed with a high-risk heist flick (albeit decidedly more action-oriented than of an "Ocean's Eleven" caper variety).

If there's any criticism of the movie, it's that it takes a while before things truly become interesting and gripping, and that we really know next to nothing about any of these characters. Even so, it's nice to see a multinational cast (all the better to appeal to foreign audiences, my pretty) and one with a female lead. And as previously stated, once the true action kicks in, the film really flies. Of course, fans of the "Star Wars" universe will enjoy all of the various references to Episode IV, various brief cameos and the third act appearance of Darth Vader.

All in all, I enjoyed the film that nicely balances being its own standalone offering and one that pays homage to and serves as an important thread in the sci-fi series that George Lucas created a long time ago (in a galaxy really, really close). "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed December 12, 2016 / Posted December 16, 2016

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