5/15/2018

Review: 'Solo: A Star Wars Story', Han Gets The Kinetic Origin Story He Deserves But May Not Need


The dilemma with supremely cool characters like Han Solo is how much do you ever reveal about them? Go too far and you run the risk of ruining their mystique, like has happened to Wolverine, or more aptly a different Star Wars character, Boba Fett. Reveal too little and fans will wonder why you did anything at all. Disney tackles this challenge head on with their second sorta standalone movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story, which introduces us the roguish hero long before he ever stumbled upon anybody named Skywalker. While the case could easily be made that Han Solo doesn't need any kind of origin, by the time the film is over fans will be glad he does.


An entertaining and often thrilling exercise in fan service, Solo checks off all the expected boxes: How Han Solo met Chewbacca, how he acquired the Millennium Falcon and learned to fly the Kessel Run, how he met Lando Calrissian, etc. But in truth those are the least interesting aspects of the story told by director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lawrence and Jon Kasdan. The best is seeing how a younger Han, played with surprising swagger by Alden Ehrenreich, pulls himself out of the gutter to take the first steps to becoming the reluctant Rebel leader we would come to love.


Howard, who took over a troubled production from fan-favorite directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, sets up a romp of a space Western in the vein of Firefly. You half expect Nathan Fillion to come bounding around the corner with a laser pistol on his hip.  Fortunately we are spared a lot of childhood backstory, jumping straight into Han's attempted escape, via a stolen speeder, from a crappy life of servitude in the gutters of Corellia. Along with his gal Qi'Ra (Emilia Clarke), they want to escape and live a life among the stars as pilots. But when their plan hits a snag and they are separated, Han is backed into a corner and forced to join the Empire.


Contrary to the events of The Force Awakens, the Han Solo we know is a survivor, and he does whatever it takes to get back to Qi'Ra so they can be together. Even if that means fighting on the battlefield as a grunt soldier, which is where he meets his hetero lifemate Chewbacca, along with con artists Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and others. Worming his way into their crew for a huge score of stolen coaxium hyperfuel, Han's propensity for going against orders bites him in the butt as it so often does.  Unlike the Han we would come to know later, this one is wide-eyed and hopeful, or at least brazenly confident in his own abilities even when it backfires. In this case, his screwup runs them all afoul of notorious gangster Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany), who has ties to Qi'Ra that Han isn't so happy with.


Solo: A Star Wars Story zips along quickly and features one of the best extended action sequences the franchise has ever produced. A twist on the classic train heist, this one finds Han and his crew on an ice planet hurtling along on an elevated rail while gun-toting marauders and Imperial sentry droids take potshots at them. It's a blistering sequence that reminds you of cinematographer Bradford Young's unmatched eye, and Howard's taste for blockbuster action. He may not be the most inspiring filmmaker out there but he knows how to fashion thrilling popcorn entertainment, and that's all Solo really aspires to be.


Some may find it disappointing the lack of ambition to be something greater, but that's what the numbered trilogy movies are for. The spinoffs have a singular goal which is to tell a specific, straight-forward story. It should come as no surprise this is the second spinoff to be a heist movie about a ragtag group of criminals. Howard is the right guy for that kind of movie, although we see in bits and pieces how things might have looked if Lord and Miller had remained. They were canned when their version resembled an improv comedy rather than a Star Wars movie, and we see elements of what was probably left over from their regime. For instance the feminist android L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando's right hand bot, who loudly fights for droid equality while secretly harboring a crush on her human master. Like most of the overt attempts at humor in the film she is more curious than outright funny, and definitely overstays her welcome.


The rest of the cast are solid but there are two standouts. The first is Ehrenreich, a gifted actor ever since he debuted in Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro years ago, he was given the impossible task of walking in Harrison Ford's boots.  He doesn't try to emulate Ford, which would have had us all screaming for his head, but every now and then he'll crack a devilish smirk or strikes a cocksure stance and you'll be reminded of the guy who played that role for so long. The other is Donald Glover, whose Lando Calrissian with his closet full of capes could carry an entire franchise all by himself. Glover embodies all of the magnetism of Billy Dee Williams but isn't afraid to play the character his own way. Lando's backstory has as much mystery as anybody and would be perfect for a future spinoff. Hey Disney, you listening?? Make it happen!


Solo: A Star Wars Story doesn't try to do too much, but it still fits neatly into the wider universe. There are cameos and at least one surprising appearance from a Star Wars legacy character, and many of the questions we have about Han have been answered. He's a little less mysterious now, but still every bit the rough 'n tumble scoundrel who bucks authority and eventually becomes part of a Resistance. We know where his story ends, but there are many years' worth of Han's adventures left to tell before getting there.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5