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‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ review: A welcome addition to the saga

Newsday film critic Rafer Guzmán reviews "Star Wars: The Last Jedi", the ninth film in the Star Wars franchise, which opens in theaters Dec. 15. (Credit: Newsday / Monte Young)

PLOT As the Rebels battle the Empire, they pin their hopes on a legendary Jedi knight.

CAST Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill

RATED PG-13 (violent combat and battles)

LENGTH 2:32

BOTTOM LINE A fresh visual style makes this middle “Star Wars” a welcome addition to the saga. In theaters Friday.

In the yearlong run-up to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” fans have been focused mostly on one thing: What happens? Does Luke Skywalker, the young Jedi originated by Mark Hamill 40 years ago, live or die? What about Leia Organa, the plucky princess played by Carrie Fisher from 1977 up until her death last year? Will our serviceable new heroes, the warrior Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the conscience-stricken stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), fall into each other’s arms?

All will be answered when “The Last Jedi” arrives in theaters, but here’s another question: How’s the actual movie?

The answer: Pretty good. “The Last Jedi” is fresher and more visually interesting than the franchise re-launcher, 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” which treaded in the original movies’ footsteps a little too carefully, but it’s noticeably weaker in other ways. The story flits around haphazardly, and the characters — both new and old — are far from consistent. That’s the trade-off here: The narrative may be contrived, but always in the service of some rock-’em-sock-’em moment that wins you back.

Our story so far: Rey has found Luke Skwyalker on the sea-planet Ahch-To — actually Ireland — where he’s been wallowing in guilt over his failure to stop Kylo Ren (the ever-amazing Adam Driver) from turning to the dark side. Luke, played with a gnarled gravitas the younger Hamill never had, refuses to train Rey as a Jedi but — as characters in this movie often do — he changes his mind. Meanwhile, a risk-it-all scheme hatched by Finn and a new character, the idealistic mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), keeps the action moving.

“The Last Jedi,” written and directed by art-house favorite Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”), is certainly the most visually stylish movie in the series. Some of Johnson’s directorial choices are subtle, like the new way the Imperial Dreadnoughts whoosh into view; others are audacious, such as a wildly destructive space battle that unfolds as a tableau of still, silent images. That moment, possibly the best in the movie, is a good example of Johnson’s personal touch. If we’re lucky, we’ll see more of that in his upcoming “Star Wars” spinoffs.

Because “The Last Jedi” is a middle movie — the next and final chapter is due in 2019 — it’s composed largely of twists, turns and intriguing new characters that shouldn’t be spoiled here. Die-hard fans will eat it up, of course, and even casual fans will find a lot to love.

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