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'Rogue One' isn't a good 'Star Wars' movie because 2016 is that bad

A great cast is stranded with thin characters doing what amounts to a bunch of stuff in this prequel/spin-off.
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    Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen are the Asian superstars who kick some butt in "Rogue One|Jonathan Olley

‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’
Director:
Gareth Edwards
Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

In “Rogue One,” there’s no classic “Star Wars” fanfare, no drab text crawl ascending into the horizon. After the “A long time ago” jazz, we’re — with an actual “boom!” — right in the thick of it. If you found “The Force Awakens” slavishly faithful to the original trilogy (but still delightful), you might get excited. Maybe this prequel/spin-off — about the Rebel mission to procure plans for the first Death Star — will actually be its own beast, offering not what we want but something similar yet different. Maybe it won’t drown in fan service but look forward, even as it’s technically looking back in time. Maybe.

RELATED: Interview: Diego Luna on "Rogue One" and how Darth Vader was his favorite "Star Wars" character

It takes a good while to realize this is a con. Or perhaps everyone gave up. But you can’t blame the big whiff that is “Rogue One” on those breathlessly reported and scary-sounding reshoots — the ones Disney ordered to make a tough and grim space war film more “Star Wars”-y. It’s not the dearth of originality that plagues every pore of “Rogue One,” it’s the lack of inspiration. Clumsily plotted and often flat-out stupid — halfway through, a key MacGuffin is lost simply because someone forgot to grab it, which is just lazy — “Rogue One” boasts thin characters played by great actors scampering about far too many planets with names that sound like obscure venereal diseases. It’s a “Star Wars” knockoff that happens to look a lot like a “Star Wars” movie.

We’re not allowed — legally, we think — to divulge much of the plot. That’s fine, because it quickly becomes no more than a bunch of stuff happening, as is the style of the time. Things don’t start off so bleak. A harrowing opener introduces us to young Jyn Erso, who will grow up to be played by talented Oscar-nominee Felicity Jones. Before that, she has to watch as her mother is killed by some fascist Imperial stooge (Ben Mendelsohn), who then kidnaps her scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) to create the Death Star. Actually, the scene isn’t that harrowing. It ticks off all the boxes — dead mom, despairing father, traumatized kid — but as directed it’s curiously flat, lacking the life and humanity of “The Force Awakens.” Or, for that matter, of the 2014 “Godzilla.”

That may sound like a random title for a side-by-side comparison, but the two films share the same director, Gareth Edwards. Here he’s more a hired hand — like a storied chef tasked with saving a fading restaurant now known for its name, not the continuing quality of its menu. Edwards didn’t give us what we want in “Godzilla” until the final minutes, when he gave us something better than we may have dreamed. (It involved fire-vomit.) He’s great at filming bodies and vehicles in motion, and the best parts of “Rogue One” are when ships gracefully move through space, but most of the time he has to cut-cut-cut. He’s turned into a mere traffic cop, waving cast and crew through a story that should be simple but is instead needlessly jumbled.

“Rogue One” should be a straight-up badasses-on-a-mission romp, with Jones’ steely, tough Jyn joining up with a rainbow-colored band of misfits to begin the events that will lead into the original “Star Wars.” But no one on the team is particularly interesting, and they have little time to hang. They’re played by interesting actors stuck with characters defined by a single tic. Riz Ahmed is a pilot. Jiang Wen has a big gun. (He looks like one of the commandos from “Doom.”) Donnie Yen is a blind, Zatoichi-esque ass-kicker. Diego Luna is almost fascinating: a rebel since a wee one, his first act involves murdering a pathetic dude to save himself. He’s haunted by a long past riddled with unethical deeds done in the name of good. We know this because he talks about it twice but otherwise doesn’t even hint at what’s eating him — he’s just a tough dude barking orders. It’s at best a fruitful idea that’s never developed, at worst only there to give the film the illusion of complexity.

That’s “Rogue One” in a nutshell: a collection of good things scattered here, there and everywhere. Here’s Felicity Jones looking angry and tough. Here’s Ben Mendelsohn ripping into some weirdo line readings. Here’s Mads Mikkelsen anguishing like a pro. Here’s Donnie Yen doing martial arts. Here’s Alan Tudyk voicing the token funny robot. Here’s a diverse cast, each one from a group demonized during any random Trump rally, with nary a white, American male in sight. These are all, on their face, good things. But even these good things start to feel like calculated distractions from the gaping void at the center — candy doled out by grandparents to keep children from raising Cain.

There are bad things, too. As “Rogue One” wears on, the call-backs, shout-outs and nods to the original trilogy start piling up like cars in a John Landis movie. Even Jimmy Smits wanders in from the prequels. Worst are the frequent appearances of Peter Cushing, who played Death Star honcho Tarkin in the first “Star Wars.” Cushing died in 1994 but here he is, digitally replicated before our eyes, because Fred Astaire selling vacuums beyond the grave in ’90s commercials wasn’t creepy enough. It’s fan service taken to its most absurd, ethically dodgy limits. When it starts, “Rogue One” plays like the cool runt of the franchise’s litter. By the end, it’s a depressing reminder that, awful as the prequels were, at least they had character.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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