The Disney+ “Star Wars” series could be titled “Episode III and a Half: How a Jedi Got His Groove Back” but for simplicity’s sake they just went with “Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
Whereas the previous two shows (“The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett”) went for more of a Western flavor, the first two episodes of the six-part “Kenobi” (streaming now, ★★★ out of four) drop Ewan McGregor’s returning title character into the Jedi equivalent of a “John Wick” movie with some strong neo-noir vibes. While it doesn’t break any huge new “Star Wars” ground, at least not yet – we’ll see what happens in the next four episodes (streaming weekly beginning Wednesday) – the series nicely bridges the gap between the prequels and the original trilogy and hints at some political intrigue within the evil Empire.
Darth Vader (Hayden Christensen) is in it, too, so things are always interesting when that guy starts breathing heavy.
‘He’s still got hope in him’:Ewan McGregor revisits his ‘Star Wars’ Jedi master in ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’
Set 10 years after “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” which ended with the rise of the Empire and brutal executions of the noble Jedi Order, “Kenobi” finds its main man (now known as “Ben”) in exile of sorts on the planet Tatooine. He’s buried his lightsaber, commutes to work at a meat-packing station in the desert and lives an ordinary solitary life, though does keep watch over young Luke Skywalker – now hidden away from his father Anakin (aka Lord Vader).
Obi-Wan also stays off the radar to avoid the Imperial Inquisitors, former Jedi turned bad guys hunting down any surviving folks who are one with the Force, and balks at a return to the heroic existence he once lived. “The fight is done. We lost,” he tells another former Jedi now on the run. But when an old friend from the past calls in a favor, Kenobi finally acts, hopping on a transport ship and choosing to be a warrior once again.
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Directed by Deborah Chow (“The Mandalorian”), “Kenobi” feels more like old-school “Star Wars” than its Disney+ predecessors, from the credits to John Williams’ rousing new theme. It also embraces the sci-fi weirdness of strange creatures and odd aliens around while firmly planting the storytelling in a time of haves and have-nots. Really, though, the galaxy’s not really safe for anybody: People will do anything for monetary credits, Stormtroopers march in the neon-lit streets of a nighttime metropolis and, if you’re a Jedi, good luck out there.
Fans will get a kick out of familiar characters (especially one in particular) who show up in “Kenobi”; more impressive are the subtle reflections of well-known scenes that add thematic depth. Like Keanu Reeves’ Wick, who was out before circumstances brought him back into his primary gig, it doesn’t take long before Obi-Wan reconnects with the proud, compassionate man he used to be before going full hermit. And McGregor fashions a Kenobi we haven’t seen before, one who’s still aces in a fight yet seems to be heading more toward the wise old Alec Guinness version in 1977’s first “Star Wars” film.
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Fresh personalities spark on screen as well, including Kumail Nanjiani as a con man Obi-Wan comes across on a mission. The best new character – and the most intriguing personality in the show, more so than even its namesake – is Reva (Moses Ingram), a lightsaber-wielding female Inquisitor who’s ruthless, reckless and, for reasons that will probably be explored, hellbent on eliminating Obi-Wan. In a Dark Side sense, she reminds of the Anakin we saw in the “Star Wars” prequels, making her ambitions to please her iconic boss in the black helmet all the more fascinating.
Other than renewing the Anakin/Obi-Wan rivalry – there’s some bad blood there, of course – “Kenobi” doesn’t give away its grand plan early, though perhaps it might take an overall more wandering bent a la “The Mando.” This is a franchise that has a habit of returning to the same time period over and over again, and the new series smartly embraces a central character-driven narrative. If “Star Wars” fans are going to see a new angle to things they know, it should be with a beloved familiar face.