I originally felt that these characters were too briefly developed for me to fall in love with them the way I did the original cast of Luke, Leia and Han Solo. Now I think I may have been unfair. There are some real fan-faves in Rogue One that I think will hold the test of time. And who knows, maybe we'll get to see them again in the Star Wars Rebels cartoon, or some of the other spinoffs. Their performances might have been too subtle for me to grasp the full depth of the first go around. This is where repeated viewings I think will really reward viewers. And Star Wars wouldn't be Star Wars without rewatching it a hundred-million times.
Forrest Whitaker was amazing as Saw Gerrera. The trailers gave the impression there were many more scenes of him raising Jyn Erso that may have gotten cut, but it's a testament to the acting that what little remains was so effective in such a small space. As much as I'd still like to see those scenes in a director's cut, or short video, or at least DVD-extras, I gotta say, what made it to film is enough. You see the craziness in his eyes from the years of combat, and the toll it's taken on his body and mind. When he utilizes the Bo-Gullit creature (or however it's spelled), he says it has one side-effect, that "one tends to lose one's mind." The implication is ominous and revealing. All his years of mistrust and suspicion have caused him to again and again fall back on this creature, and it has caused him to go insane as a result. I also suspect his character is a metaphor for modern-day extremism and the unintended cost to one's self of using torture to extract information, something that makes me wish all the more that we had more time with him.
Bodhi, the pilot, is another character I grew more impressed with on subsequent viewings. His caustic stammering seems goofy at first, but is ultimately haunting. I think his courage is the most visually expressed, in his eyes and his hesitations and his nervous tics. Right up to the end, he knows what kind of risk he is about to take yet he does it anyway. From his defection all the way to the end sending a signal to the rebel fleet, you see him anticipating the hardship before him but never giving in. We may not have the details of how Galen Erso persuaded him to defection, but we see the toll it's taken on him.
Cassian Andor dissapointed me the first time as a less-heroic Han Solo rip-off. But he's much better than that. He's broken from a life or moral compromises and his only companion is a reprogrammed droid he doesn't trust with a gun. I think the actor did a great job capturing this sense of brokenness, and though we don't know anything about the life he's lived, it's clear from his portrayal that he has fought his whole life in the Rebellion and that he has lost many friends and family and had to do many bad things along the way. He's full of guilt and regret and he's losing hope. This may be why he turns in the third act after hearing Jyn's speach about hope. He admits that without this chance to stop the Death Star, all those soul-selling decisions will be for naught.
Chirrut needs no explanation. Donnie Yen is fantastic and convincing as both a blind man and as one of the last faithful followers of the Force. It's his spirit and faith which turns the narrative around and embodies the power of both trust and hope. His buddy (boyfriend?) Baze Malbus with the machine gun, is a little less developed. Clues to their relationship and history are scarce, but if you look for them, I think you will find a complex character there. We know that Baze is grumpy because he used to be one of the most faithful guardians of the Whills (whatever that is) before the Imperial occupation. He has lost his way spiritually, but can't stop tagging along his buddy Chirrut and chiding his endless optimism. Why? Not because he doesn't believe anymore, but as Chirrut says, "because he knows it is possible." Even in his hopelessness, he can't stop following around the most hopeful person he knows. When he adopts Chirrut's mantra in his last scene (though in reverse) you can't help but feel the poignancy of his return to faith.
K-2SO is also another obvious winner. Alan Tudyk creates the anti-C-3PO, with this dry and sardonic droid, who is every bit as funny without ever being annoying. He provides just enough life and emotion into his flat demeanor to make you wonder just how alive these droids are supposed to be. When Jyn finally hands him that gun he wanted at the end, he says, "You never stop surprising me" (paraphrase). This trust that's finally placed in him may very well be the catalyst to his ultimate sacrifice, only a few minutes later. There's also a line in the third act, when they invade Scarif, when he makes a joke about how they'll need a map. Cassian tells him, "Stop making jokes. You know what you have to do." We shortly thereafter see K-2SO hacking into the brain of another droid just like himself. I feel like there is some subtext here but I can't put my finger on it. Did K-2SO have to kill a "brother" droid in order to extract the map-data? Is this another morally dubious decision? Does this somehow pain him or put him at risk to be exposed to Imperial data? I don't know, but I am confident from the weight of the acting and the way it was portrayed, that this was no small moment. I'll be watching for it again on future viewings.
Ben Mendelsohn is sniveling and perfectly pompous as Director Krennic, and I relished all his villainous egotism. He could've easily been a two-bit badguy, but he embues his character with so much insecurity and neediness you can't help but enjoy him. Mads Mikkelsen is also quite effective in his few brief scenes as Jyn's father, an Imperial science officer. You really feel the weight of his entrapment, having to help the Empire build the Death Star. It's his original trust in his daughter, to whom he sends his secret message after all these years, that plants the seeds of hope in Jyn and which infects the rest of the team and ultimately wins the day.
Lastly, Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. I really felt they rushed a lot of her backstory and left only the barest references to an entire life lived off-screen. But Jones does her best if not to give us the missing details, to at least depict for us the emotional consequences of that life. Her portrayal in the first two acts is spot-on for someone abandoned twice and left to fend for herself. She doesn't even trust the people rescuing her, or her father (after he went to work for the Empire). She's cold and unforgiving toward Saw Gerrera, and you sense the blame she places on him. Likewise with her father, she again gets only the one scene to depict the weight of their history, and you can feel it. Her tension with Cassian is both personal and vulnerable, and though they don't kiss before their big demise at the end, you can sense that they have finally "found" each other in a philosophically intimate way.
Ultimately they all die with honor and courage and a little bit of hope. I don't think a cast of lesser actors would've been able to give each of those scenes as much tragedy, one right after the other, almost predictably, almost repetitively. But they each brought individual humanity to their deaths.