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Woody Harrelson
Woody Harrelson
Walt Disney Studios
 135 Minutes
Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson  

There are two ways to look at Solo, the latest entry in the Star Wars canon, and it’s pretty much of a glass half full/glass half empty proposition. On the one hand, the movie is a relatively decent action adventure with a great first act, a decent second act, and a somewhat muddled finale. On the other hand, as a Star Wars vehicle, it has little of the George Lucas pixie dust that has inhabited every single earlier movie, to one extent or another, over the last forty years. Instead, it contributes little to the mythos other than to connect a few dots for completists.


The titular Solo, of course, is Han Solo, the swaggering soldier of fortune immortalized by Harrison Ford in the original Star Wars film, and Solo, the movie, is a prequel  to the earlier films, set some ten years or so prior to Ford’s first appearance in the role. We first meet the young Han as an orphan (we learn in an early scene cribbed from The Godfather just how he acquired the name Solo) on a planet that seems like a futuristic vision of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) make their living stealing and scrounging and eventually running afoul of one of the local gangs. Han manages to flee the planet by agreeing to join the Imperial Guard in hopes of becoming a pilot. Qi’ra isn’t so lucky, being caught before she can escape with Han.


Han winds up being somewhat unlucky himself, getting dragooned into the infantry, before he is eventually able to desert and hook up with a band of outlaws led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Also joining Tobias’ band is Han’s new companion, Chewbacca. Han and Chewbacca try to help Tobias’ gang steal a cargo of precious fuel off a high speed overhead monorail train in the film’s best set piece. The plan goes awry when a rival gang makes off with the fuel first, leaving Tobias to explain to his employer, crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).


In order to save his skin, Tobias agrees to steal more of the fuel, this time from its source, a distant mining planet. Tobias, Han, and Chewbacca wind up with a couple of new traveling companions, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and Qi’ra, who, in the years since being separated from Han has wound up becoming Dryden’s new mistress. The motley crew does have a brand new ship to take them on their mission, Lando’s Millenium Falcon. And it comes complete with Lando’s robotic crew, a humanoid co-pilot called L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who goes along on the mission in the hopes of freeing some of her fellow robots being forced into serving the overlords of the mining planet.


Someone who has for some reason emerged from a cave where he or she spent the last 42 years before heading to the theater to watch Solo would probably be reasonably impressed by the movie, albeit puzzled by some of the references. Ron Howard directed this episode of the franchise, taking over midstream in production when the earlier directorial duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller was canned by the Lucasfilm production company. Although the reasons for this change were never made clear (nor is there any indication of how much of the finished product represents Howard’s work as opposed to that of the earlier directors), the finished product very much resembles Howard’s typical craftsmanship. The train robbery sequence, which involves trying to remove a car from the middle of the monorail traveling through a treacherous high mountain region and haul it away by means of a space ship, takes many of the familiar elements of train robbery sequences and re-imagines them in a particularly exciting manner, with very good blending of CGI and live action. The later robbery on the mining planet is a cross between an Ocean’s 11 style caper and, well, every Star Wars undercover sequence ever filmed.


When its main characters aren’t robbing trains or planning raids on mining planets, however, Solo lags somewhat, whether judged by caveman standards or those of a Star Wars loyalist. Much of the problem is due to Alden Ehrenreich, an actor, like the Harrison Ford of forty years ago, has a minimal resume, but doesn’t have assured cockiness of the Han Solo we grew to know and love. Of course, one might argue that Solo the character grew into the role, but Donald Glover, on the other hand, is a perfect Lando Calrissian, down to the attitude, and it’s easy to picture him morphing into Billy Dee Williams. Ehrenreich, on the other hand, seems more like a college student playing the role of Han Solo on a Disney World Millenium Falcon theme ride.


Han Solo isn’t the only casting problem in the movie. Solo features a particularly weak group of villains, mostly a large number of quickly disposed of stuntmen wearing helmets covering their faces. There’s nary a Darth Vader in sight, and Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos is rather bland in his role. The script by Lawrence Kasdan and son Jonathan throws in the typical assortment of double and triple crosses late in the film, but the exposition and reveals are rather ham handed (right down to a key character being killed right after saying “there’s something else you really need to know”), and the big twist at the end is a twist that will only really be appreciated by those very familiar with the franchise and its various television offshoots.


And that in a nutshell is what much of Solo feels like, a checklist of “mandatory” Star Wars moments interspersed with bits of filler that explain gaps in the mythos. So, we learn about the Kessel Run, the card game in which Han won the Falcon, how Han met Chewie and the like. None of that is sufficient to explain a summer blockbuster release, especially one that follows a mere five months after its Star Wars predecessor. On the plus side, we have the obligatory heir to the cantina scene, in this case the card game that blends a wide variety of creatures in a game that appears tantalizingly alike yet different than poker. And, as mentioned earlier, Ron Howard does an excellent job of creating “typical” Star Wars action scenes that have a great deal of vitality to them.


In an era in which action spectaculars, including Disney’s corporate stablemates, the Marvel films, continually push the envelope, how well does Howard’s craftsmanlike effort fit in? Pretty well, actually, for a movie that is highly derivative. There’s none of the wonderment one finds in the other Star Wars films, and Woody Harrelson is the only actor to make much of an impression here, but the action is lively enough to fill two hours without boredom or overkill setting in. Ironically, this movie probably comes closer to George Lucas’ original vision of the franchise than most of the other episodes, namely an entertaining yet derivative Saturday afternoon B-movie. Granted, this may be the most expensive B-movie ever made, but Solo represents a generally lively hearkening back to that tradition.

In this clip, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) for the first time.

Read other reviews of Solo: 

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) on IMDb