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Bold new adventure: Johnson propels 'The Last Jedi' to greatness

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    This image released by Lucasfilm shows John Boyega as Finn in a scene from, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

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    This image released by Lucasfilm shows Gwendoline Christie as Capt. Phasma in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Film-Review-Star-Wars-The-Last-Jedi-2

    This image released by Lucasfilm shows Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," in theaters on Dec. 15.

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Debates will rage whether writer-director Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi ranks as the greatest Star Wars film.

But on the subject of whether it is the boldest perhaps even craziest Star Wars film, there will be no argument. There has never been a Star Wars movie like it.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi shocks, stuns, humors, cajoles, and then drops you to the floor with franchise-changing revelations that will cause gasps among the space-fantasy saga's deepest fans. The Last Jedi is like a finished jigsaw puzzle that Johnson has taken apart piece by piece, shaken up in a box, and carefully put together as an entirely new picture using the same puzzle piece shapes and cuts. The puzzle is familiar and yet something much different.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Directed and written by Rian Johnson. A Lucasfilm release playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, Bowling Green, and Mall of Monroe. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence. Running time: 152 minutes.

Critic's rating: 4.5 stars

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher.

The theme of good and evil, of course, is always present. And as usual, the good guys are in trouble. The film opens with the beleaguered Resistance — Leia (Carrie Fisher), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Finn (John Boyega) — on the run from the growing might of the Empire-like First Order and cagey Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his squabbling minions, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).

There’s a rousing space battle with daring ace pilot Poe securing a much-needed victory for the Resistance, and Leia as the wise general who knows that such heroes may win battles, but it’s leaders who win wars. She lets Poe know that as well.

Fisher delivers what is General Leia’s proudest and bravest moments onscreen. It’s a wonderful and certainly unintentional swan song performance that only reminds us of how much more Leia and Fisher had to give.

But it’s the other original trilogy veteran, Luke Skywalker, Johnson knows we really want to see.

In what amounted to the greatest tease in film history at the end of The Force Awakens, the older Jedi Master (Mark Hamill), self-imposed on a hidden planet, stares wordlessly as potential new Jedi apprentice Rey (Daisy Ridley) approaches him with a family relic, the blue lightsaber once used by Luke and his father Darth Vader.

Rey quickly learns that Skywalker isn’t who she thought he would be, and needs him to be.

VIDEO: Star Wars ‘The Last Jedi’ trailer

Heroes learning to be heroes is a thread among all Star Wars films, but never more than in The Last Jedi, a film alternately about growing up and growing old, and either living up to your expectations or living with a legacy, including those expectations of others. The actors aren’t playing archetypes now, but people who hurt, love, fight, win, lose, and struggle.

Hamill, for example, delivers the most complete version of Luke we’ve seen. An everyman farmboy pushed into something so much bigger than he realized, the galaxy’s savior, who won the war and then lost himself. It’s up to Rey to literally and figuratively find him, and to fight against the new threat of Kylo, Luke's nephew Ben Solo, who wishes to be her new teacher.

Ridley and Driver, as the driving forces of this new trilogy, have so much more to do and say and act after their introductions in The Force Awakens, and the pair seize the opportunity with confident performances of two characters who share many of the same Force abilities and emotional vulnerabilities.

On the Dark Side, Serkis gives Snoke menace and power, a weapon in his own right, as Hux continues in the grand tradition of Imperial and now First Order military incompetence.

An important addition to The Last Jedi is Rose (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran in an honestly sweet performance that also heralds the first Asian-American in this growing multicultural galaxy). Rose is a no one in the Resistance who finds herself becoming a Big Deal to Finn on an all-important mission.

For all its emotional storms, The Last Jedi is harbored by an easy humor, particularly among Isaac, Boyega, and Hamill.

Of the other two major new faces, Laura Dern as a combative leader in The Resistance stands out, while Benicio Del Toro as a character of questionable morals seems to be around as more of the film's commentary about the vast middle ground between the opposing forces of Light and Dark.

As always with the Star Wars saga films, the steady hand of Oscar-winning film composer John Williams is there to subtly stir and arouse The Last Jedi's range of emotions, but this time Johnson and collaborative cinematographer Steve Yedlin are there to shape it with striking and haunting images that are just as powerful and sweeping.

The worries that the second film in this new Star Wars trilogy would be an echo of The Empire Strikes Back, just as The Force Awakens mirrored A New Hope to a fault, are unwarranted, as the 43-year-old filmmaker reimagines and reinvents this space mythos as only someone who just didn't grow up with Star Wars, but was changed by it can do. The film’s closing shot attests to that.

The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars film since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back because it’s so much more than stars and wars. It’s those stories, joys, and pains of the heroes, villains, and nobodies who lived it.

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com  or 419-724-6734.

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