Considering all the turmoil behind it, Solo: A Star Wars Story has no business being as good as it is. A quick recap, for those who haven’t been following the drama: With but a few weeks left on the shooting schedule, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were dropped by the studio, due to the dreaded “creative differences.” Production briefly shut down until veteran director Ron Howard was brought on to right the (star)ship. During the intermediate chaos, a lot of rumors circulated, including one that star Alden Ehrenreich was not up to par as young Han.
Let me address that rumor first. Handsome Ehrenreich is a more than solid Han Solo—charming, sufficiently cocky, even rakish at times. Yes, it’s fair to say that Ehrenreich doesn’t have the touch of danger, the musk of forbidden sexuality that Ford brought to the role, but that arguably makes sense for the character. This is a young Solo—not jaded yet, still loyal to a fault, and hopelessly in love.
As for the film itself, it feels more like a product by team player Howard (and notoriously control-freakish producer Kathleen Kennedy) than Miller and Lord, who gave us the freewheeling and irreverent Lego movies. Still, it’s tons of fun—at least partly because it doesn’t have to pay homage to so much of the Star Wars mythology.
While I’ve liked the recent Star Wars films, in particular Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, I feel they’ve been slightly weighed down by the burden of expectations, the impossible need to be all things to all the different strains of obsessive fans.
Because the Solo story is mostly new material, and doesn’t have to wedge itself perfectly into a Star Wars timeline, it feels looser, freer than either the Force Awakens or The Last Jedi or even the grim little prequel Rogue One.
It’s about 10 years or so before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope—aka, the actual first Star Wars (sorry, I’m old)—and Han is a scavenger who serves the “foul Lady Proxima” on the planet Corellia and yearns to fly starships and escape with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). He and Qi’ra devise a daring plan to get off the planet and it almost works—until she is snatched up by Proxima’s guards and Solo is forced to escape without her. He ends up enlisting in the Imperial Army, where he learns to fly. The next time we catch up with him he’s on some sort of botched military mission, being led by an outlaw named Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who’s masquerading as an Imperial captain. Beckett is a tough, smart, wizened mercenary, who is loyal to his crew—composed of girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton) and four-armed, alien pilot Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau)—and virtually no one else. So basically he’s future Han Solo, only without even a shred of romanticism.
Han tries to convince Beckett to let him join his crew, but first he has to escape punishment by the Imperial Army. Here’s where Han Solo and Chewbacca have their spectacular meet cute—but I won’t ruin it by saying anything more.
Suffice it to say that Han and Qi’ra are soon reunited, although now she’s the lieutenant (and possibly more) to the nefarious Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), who has hired Beckett’s team for a Fast and Furious-style train robbing mission, and Beckett spends much of the film questioning her true allegiances. (Han, however, never wavers in his faith in her.)
Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) shows up halfway through the film, with his capes and intricate facial hair and dandy-ish cool—and he and his mouthy droid sidekick L3-37 (Phoebe Waller Bridge) nearly steal the show.
Solo: A Star Wars story zips along for its 2 hour and 23 minute running time. It’s exciting, romantic, pretty much a blast—but it’s secretly a little sad around the edges. For most of the Star Wars films, Han is a good man pretending to be a scoundrel, but his cynicism has been hard-earned. Here he really does have a wide-eyed innocence and optimism that the events of the film begin to chip away at. If they do a sequel to this film, I’ll be curious to see if Ehrenreich can grow into a more jaded version of Han.
Oh, and another way that I know for sure this is most definitely a Ron Howard production? It features cameos by Ron’s brother, Clint Howard, and Warwick Davis, the star of Howard’s Willow. Hey, a man’s gotta be loyal to his crew.