For a movie plagued for months by stories of its troubled production—its original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, getting the boot in favor of industry stalwart Ron Howard; the overhauling re-shoots that ensued; and the rumored acting coach hired to assist the movies struggling and potentially miscast star, Alden Ehrenreich, to recount just three fleshy bits of on-set drama—Solo: A Star Wars Story is a surprisingly smooth ride. Maybe unsurprisingly, if you remember that this is Disney were talking about. Over the course of multiple Star Wars films—and multiple difficult productions—the studio has figured out how to turn out smooth-operating, high-achieving box-office mainstays regardless of behind-the-scenes drama, to varying effect.
It gets off to a slow, muddy, grimly predictable start—but Solo is ultimately, thankfully, one of the good ones. It ought to be: as a movie taking on one of the most likable, movie-star handsome, archetypically familiar characters in the entire galaxy, this would seem a tough property to mess up. One hair flip or clench of the jaw, and we should more or less be on the title characters side. Hans legacy is as the guy who wants to do his own thing, who may not always want to be there, but who does the job nevertheless—and does it well. I guess thats another way of saying Harrison Ford never stopped being Han Solo.
The bad news is that Alden Ehrenreich doesnt do much of a Ford impression; the older actors no-bullshit charisma is too singular to imitate, really, which is one of the reasons hes a bona fide movie star. The good news, though, is that Ehrenreich manages something more apt. After all, this isnt a movie about the fully formed, breezy, macho-lite hero we all already love—its a movie about a guy who hasnt totally come into himself. By the end of the movie, Han is just one half-step closer to becoming the well-coiffed casual renegade the world fell in love with in the original Star Wars.
When the movie starts, winding through the damp, industrial alleyways of the planet Corellia—what the opening scroll winkingly calls the “mean streets” of this corner of the galaxy—Hans already a guy trying to make his own way in the world. After a scheme to escape Corellia with his girlfriend, Qira (Emilia Clarke), goes sour, and Qira gets left behind, Han enlists in the imperial military with a long-term goal of coming back to Corellia and getting Qira back.
Things of course dont pan out so easily as all that. But in classic Star Wars fashion, this a movie about the friends made along the way—a pair of crafty marauders named Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton), for example, and Chewbacca, whose first encounter with Han feels like an amusing throwback to a familiar scene from the original trilogy. Theres the mega-rich, villainous Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), too, a literal scarface—hes got dark marks spanning his face, from forehead to chin, that seem to gleam red when hes angry. Dryden enlists Han and friends to acquire the dangerously radioactive Coaxium, the same high-value starship fuel Han used to buy his way off Corellia to begin with. This is done under the auspices of a fearsome mega-power called the Crimson Dawn, and despite the constant interference of pirates with complicated intentions. But do we really need to get into that? Its Star Wars: all roads lead back to the Empire.
Solo is both complicated and not—the filmmakers have done us the courtesy of drumming up a multifaceted, if sometimes familiar, plot, one that takes enjoyable detours through seemingly every genre of Hollywood movie comprising Han Solos personality. Theres a great train robbery, per Hans Western inclinations, for example, with a dash of heist shenanigans and light doses of slapstick, just as youd expect.
But no amount of plot-twisting can obscure the real draw of the movie. Weve got questions; Solo is supposed to have the answers. Like: how did Han and Chewie become such natural partners? And howd they nab the Millennium Falcon? How and when did he and Lando Calrissian—played here by Donald Glover, who gives the role a fashionably low-key hum worthy of Billy Dee Williams—become friends? Biggest of all: why is he the way he is? Romantically speaking, I mean. I can take or leave much of the rest of the Star Wars lore, at this point—just give me the movie that finally asks, “Han: who hurt you?”
This one gets us there admirably enough, with an unfussy style befitting the scrappy younger sibling to a big-bad franchise. Ron Howard didnt make the movie I suspect action-comedy pros Lord and Miller would have made; their version, I imagine, would have been a wilder, faster, more spontaneous ride. But he did make a movie that seems to know its place. Whereas Rogue One tried to convince us it was an effective war movie (which I still dont buy; are war movies usually so boring?) Solo guesses, rightly, that whats being requested of it is pure pleasure. The movie doubles down on that old Star Wars trick of sneaking in personality around the margins of its more staid plot objectives; the action scenes are, reliably, as much about wisecracks as they are about the action.
Maybe thats vague praise. But then, in predictable ways, this is a vague movie—politically, especially, even as it pays a lot of lip service to things like liberation and revolution, as is par for the course with this new Star Wars regime. The movies sharpest insight might be that Han Solo, at least at the start of his career, tended to be the least interesting guy in the room. Lando and his saucy (and dare I say leftist) droid L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) are a dependable pair of scene-stealers, as is Harrelson, whos become somewhat of an M.V.S.P.—Most Valuable Supporting Player—in brand-name franchises lately.
Clarke, too, shines as a woman whos made sacrifices Han cannot imagine. To the extent that the movie is a western at heart, its smartest, subtlest influence is the Joan Crawford classic Johnny Guitar, about a woman who makes her way in the Wild West against all odds, and in the face of all morality. Its a poignant, intriguing-enough buried subplot that I almost wished Qira were the star of her own story. Maybe, someday, she could be. But that story would verge on messy politics—and this, Solo seems to say, is not that kind of movie.
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