*****BANTHA-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
The latest chapter of DisneyPlus’ The Mandalorian series, “The Gunslinger,” is streaming this week. Co-written and directed by series co-creator Dave Filoni (“Rebels” “The Clone Wars”) there are many nods, easter-eggs and homages to the original 1977 Star Wars (aka “A New Hope”) in this chapter, most of them taking place on the planet Tatooine; that remote desert world where it all started…
“Gunslinger” opens with the Razor Crest under attack by another Guild bounty hunter who wants the vessel’s precious cargo: Baby Yoda (not his actual name, but that’s what the internet named him). Mando (Pedro Pascal) has already broken from the Guild code in protecting the 50-year old infant, and he is determined to bring the child to safety. With one of the engines damaged and his ship losing power, Mando slams on the brakes, comes up from behind his attacker, and destroys him. With a failing engine and a fuel leak, Mando sets down on the nearest world… Tatooine, the desert world with binary suns that was seen in most films of the original and prequel trilogies. Yes, that Tatooine.
Mos Eisley spaceport control clears him for landing in Bay 35, which is run by one Peli Motto (Amy Sedaris, of “Strangers With Candy”), who, along with her squad of maintenance droids, is tasked with making repairs to the Razor Crest. Sedaris is nearly unrecognizable with her frizzy hair, lived-in clothing and almost no makeup; her performance gives this episode a lot of its warmth and humor.
Mando instructs Motto not to allow droids inside the ship; his concern is, of course, their possible discovery of Baby Yoda, whose presence he doesn’t disclose to Motto. When she presents her repair estimate, he offers her what little he has, with the promise of more when he goes into town to get work. The feisty but fair Motto agrees, and Mando thanks her. The familiar architecture and buildings of Mos Eisley are a sight to behold for fans of Star Wars; some appear to be shot in the exact Tunisian locales as the original 1977 movie.
Mando makes his way to the very same cantina where Luke Skywalker and “Ben” Kenobi first met Han Solo and Chewbacca years before (and where Han shot Greedo first, dammit!). The recreated set is a near-perfect match to the original. It’s remarkable, in fact. The old cantina looks a bit less busy this time around, and it is also under new management. Droids are not only allowed inside now, but they’re also hired as bartenders, too. That’s progress. Mando asks the droid barkeep about finding bounty hunting work locally. The droid (a model similar to the one that interrogated C3PO in “Return of the Jedi”) tells him that Guild bounty hunters no longer operate on Tatooine…
… until a young hotshot seated at one of the booths chimes in. Toro Calican (Jake Cannavale) is a fresh-faced bounty hunter on his first assignment (an homage to Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”, where a young pup gunslinger seeks out experienced post-retiree partner Eastwood). Recognizing that Mandalorians are galaxy-renowned bounty hunters, the young buck decides he could use a hand in bringing in Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), a legendary assassin who eats bounty hunters like him for breakfast. Toro lays it on real thick, overcompensating for his lack of experience with macho bluster. Mando, of course, sees right through it, but he needs the work, so he takes Toro up on his offer. He tells the younger man to fetch two speeder bikes, and meet him at Docking Bay 35.
Meanwhile, as Motto’s crew of droids play cards during a break on repairs to the Razor Crest, they hear a noise inside the ship. As one of her droids fetches her blaster, the tiny figure of Baby Yoda descends down the ramp of the ship! Motto’s maternal instincts kick in, as he immediately helps the infant, and has one of her droid techs fetch some food (“Something with bones!”).
Mando returns to the Bay, and momentarily freaks out when he finds Baby Yoda gone from his crib. He calms down once he realizes that Motto has the baby, and he is assured that she is not going to harm it (Mando is sometimes trusting to a fault, but more on that later…).
Outside the bay, Mando is met by Calican who, per agreement, got ahold of two speeder bikes. Not exactly top-of-the-line, but they’ll do. Calican notices the Baby Yoda in Motto’s arms, but says nothing. The two bounty hunters head out across the wild dunes of Tatooine, without a tracking fob (Calican insists he doesn’t need it) to catch their quarry; the deadly Fennec Shand…
Mando’s vast experience comes to play immediately, as he spots several banthas with his helmet visor. Banthas, are, of course, the elephantine rides of the fearsome Tusken Raiders, aka ’the Sand People’ (the same hostile species that killed Luke Skywalker’s grandmother). Dismounting their bikes, Calican gets his macrobinoculars for a closer look, boasting about taking them on. Mando deadpans “Why don’t you tell them yourself?” as the camera reveals two Tusken Raiders, standing right beside them. The scene is a nice homage to the surprise Tusken attack on Luke Skywalker in “A New Hope.”
As the Tuskens sneak up on the pair, Mando surprises Calican by negotiating with the nomadic creatures in sign language. Calican thinks of the Tuskens as encroaching savages, but Mando views it from their perspective; the Tuskens see off-worlders are the invaders of their planet. It’s a scene out of 1001 western movies, where the cowboy hero brokers peace with the local Native American tribe (a scene hilariously parodied in 1994’s “Maverick” remake). Mando works out an arrangement; safe passage for both of them through Tusken territory in exchange for Calican’s macrobinoculars. Calican is incensed, but reluctantly agrees, as he has no choice if he wants the greater prize of Fennec Shand.
Speaking of Fennic Shand, Mando and Calican soon come upon a dewback (the giant desert reptiles seen in the original Star Wars). Lying on the ground next to the beast is the dead body of an unsuccessful bounty hunter, who was also hoping to bring in Shand for her bounty. Realizing they’re getting closer to their quarry, Mando and Calican are then fired upon by Shand, who is operating from an elevated rocky ridge, some distance away. Mando takes a shot from her blaster in his Mandalorian beskar armor, but is okay…his armor and the distance made the impact survivable. Bringing Shand in will not be easy; Mando decides they need stay put and remain vigilant, believing she won’t flee since she has the ‘high ground’ (a “Revenge of the Sith” reference).
Thinking Mando has overslept, Calican stirs him in the middle of the night, only to realize the Mandalorian was already awake (Mandalorians even sleep in their masks). The two bounty hunters then ride their speeder bikes out to her ridge, using bright signal flares to intermittently blind her infrared tracking scopes (such a trick would only work at night). Mando fires off several flares, which momentarily blind Shand, who still manages to fire a shot at Mando, and he collapses. She also destroys one of their speeder bikes, leaving them a transport short. Calican loses his blaster, but takes on Shand in hand-to-hand combat. Just as she is kicking his ass to kingdom come, Mando turns up with his blaster trained on Shand, his armor intact. “Nice distraction” he retorts to Calican. Still full of venom, Shand meekly surrenders to Mando and cuffs herself.
Mando says he’ll watch over Shand while Calican backtracks and fetches the dewback they saw earlier, but Calican doesn’t trust Mando. Mando then agrees to retrieve the abandoned dewback himself. While he’s away, things get a little… complicated. Shand offers Calican twice her bounty if he’ll return her to Mos Espa in time to make her rendezvous. The young man refuses. Realizing the ambitious Calican won’t be turned with such a meek offer, she ups the ante by telling him the truth about his ‘partner’ Mando… that he is a wanted man who betrayed the entire Guild by making off with his quarry, rumored to be “a baby” (a sight Calican has seen for himself, thus confirming her story). Calican, hoping to make a name for himself in the Guild, takes the tip… then shoots her dead, realizing the bounty on Mando is worth far more. Later, Mando returns to the ridge with the dewback to find Shand dead, and immediately pieces together what happened; his ambitious young ‘partner’ has betrayed him, and is no doubt waiting for him back at docking bay 35…
Arriving on dewback at Bay 35, Mando dismounts the beast and walks in to find his former ‘partner’ with a blaster to Motto’s head and Baby Yoda in his arms. Calican orders Motto to cuff Mando while he places his hands up. As Mando raises his arms, he discretely arms another flare for firing. Motto, who is pretending to cuff him, whispers, “You’re smarter than you look.” Mando then fires the flare, momentarily blinding Calican, right before shooting his former ‘partner’ dead (Calican really should’ve anticipated Mando’s flare move, especially since he just used it to save both their necks earlier). Motto panics, worried if the collapsing Calican landed on the baby. We then see Baby Yoda peer out from his hiding place, shaken but safe.
Mando takes Baby Yoda and says his farewell to the maternal mechanic Motto, slipping her a little something extra (a lot extra) for her trouble. He then blasts out of Bay 35, back into space. The final shot sees a shadowy figure standing over the dead body of Shand at the ridge. Someone else is on Mando’s trail.
Pedro Pascal as Mando continues to do amazing work with eliciting so much character without ever showing his eyes or face…once again, a remarkable performance done entirely in body language and vocals. Forgive me for repeating this point so often in these reviews, but an actor working without facial expression it’s like an artist painting a landscape using their elbows. Guest stars Jake Cannavale (“Toro Calican”) and Ming-Na Wen (“Fennec Shand”) make for intriguing, albeit temporary, additions to The Mandalorian’s tapestry of characters. Once again, The Mandalorian gets kudos for not allowing spectacle to entirely overwhelm story and characters. And there was a lot of spectacle in “The Gunslinger”…
In fact, it’s the spectacle of this particular chapter that will really send geeks like myself to their keyboards. “The Gunslinger”, set on the original Star Wars planet of Tatooine, features near-innumerable references and homages to “A New Hope.” We see Tusken Raiders, Jawas, banthas, dewbacks, the Mos Eisley cantina, a docking bay just like the one that berthed Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, even stormtrooper helmets on spikes in the streets (following the fall of Palpatine, I assume).
There’s also a few throwaway lines of dialogue, such as Motto calling Mando a “womp-rat” and taking note of all the “carbon scoring” on his ship; Luke Skywalker made a similar note of R2-D2’s condition when he was cleaning the droid in “A New Hope.”
The reconstructed Mos Eisley cantina looks nearly identical to the original Elstree Studios set in Borehamwood, England. It was breathtaking. I also enjoyed the macrobinocular gag, with the stealthy Tusken Raiders sneaking up on their spies. It was a direct homage to the surprise attack on Luke Skywalker and C3PO in “A New Hope”; even the image composition in Calican’s macrobinocular line of sight is similar to what Luke saw in his own.
Yes, it’s all great fan service, but I also appreciate that Chapter 5 didn’t lazily rehash story beats from “A New Hope.” It is telling an entirely new story that happens to take place in those familiar locales. If you see two spy films that take place in Monte Carlo, it doesn’t mean you’re watching the same movie. If anything, seeing this location again serves to affirm that Mos Eisley, Tatooine is a ‘real’ place that can be revisited within the Star Wars universe, just like going to the one’s old hometown, or visiting an historical landmark… it’ll look more or less as you remember it, or as you saw it referenced in a book or movie.
The Mandalorian also captures that slightly grungy, funky lived-in feel of the original Star Wars trilogy. Given that we now have actual walk-in Star Wars attractions at Disney parks in Anaheim, California and Orlando, Florida? The Star Wars universe is far more tangible and believable today than it was when I was 10 years old, and it’s also surprisingly consistent. Even if one cynically discounts The Mandalorian as mere ‘tie-in product,’ it’s hard to dispute that it’s exceptionally well made tie-in product. Either way, it’s five chapters in, and I’ve not yet seen in a dud in the bunch. I’ve got my macrobinoculars out for Chapter 6.