“Solo: A Star Wars Story,” directed by Ron Howard after directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller departed several months into the shooting, is a Ron Howard film, except with African-American characters, courtesy of the original Lucasfilm, which chose to be inclusive long before the entire galaxy knew the terms “hashtag” and “diversity”—So thank you, Mr. George Lucas.
Because Howard is one of the best film directors in the world, despite his horrible track record in the diversity department (Yes, I said it, and more to the point, I mean it.), “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is made for the geeks, and I mean that as a compliment. It would pass the Comic-Con smell test with flying colors. Cinematographer Bradford Young, an African-American man whose reputation continues to soar, visually delivers moments that snatch your breath away amid the topnotch VFX.
The performances, starting with Alden Ehrenreich as the young Han Solo and Donald Glover as crafty, quirky-sexy Lando Calrissian, bring a chemistry that absolutely works circa 2018 and beyond.
What makes “Solo: A Star Wars Story” different from Lucas’ “Star Wars” stories is that it’s the first without a single use of the “Force,” and without Anakin Skywalker and his family. There is great respect paid to the franchise’s legacy, and that makes for an entertaining film and worth the price of a movie ticket.
It’s been 45 years since Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, but the spirit of the character remains perfectly intact.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” begins with young Han stealing and living inside a thieves’ den located on one of the nastiest planets in the galaxy, Corellia. To keep his reputation sharp and to live, to steal, another day, Solo has just stolen a speeder and a tiny vial of coaxium, a valuable mineral used as starship fuel. Thief that he is, Solo has no plans of offering it as tribute to the local boss, a monster by the name of Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). Solo has a dream, and that dream is to become the best pilot—ever—and he’s driven by love, namely for a fellow, clever thief named Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Think Bonnie and Clyde but in space. He’s plotting to use the coaxium to bribe their way to freedom on an outbound ship. Drama happens everywhere, and major complications arise, and Solo manages to escape by abruptly enlisting with the Empire, leaving Qi’ra behind.
Flash forward three years and he’s a grunt recruit slogging it out in some inconsequential battle on a mudbound planet. He’s been waiting for a chance to go AWOL to rescue Qi’ra, and he finally gets his window when he runs across a roving band of smugglers: Jaded leader Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his hard-bitten wife Val (Thandie Newton) and pilot Rio Durant (Jon Favreau). Now also joined by friendly Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Solo manages to cajole, charm and lie his way into their uneasy graces.
Things have started to drag by this point, but Solo’s first job with his new crew finally shakes off the doldrums. Blasting off to a new planet, their target is a trainload of coaxium being transported through the mountains on a dramatically elevated rail. Shot on location in Italy’s snow-capped Dolomites, the band’s daring raid takes place in midair, yet somehow feels more grounded than most of the recent “Star Wars” set pieces. The contours of the battle are vivid and tangible. Thanks to a split-second decision by Solo, the gang’s booty is lost, which leaves them in debt to a fearsome playboy gangster named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).
On Vos’ floating space yacht, complete with dueling alien lounge singers, Solo is surprised to find Qi’ra. Through some mysterious, implicitly unsavory means, she’s wound up as one of Vos’ top “lieutenants” and offers some subtle help as Solo makes him an offer to erase the gang’s shortfall: They’ll travel to the mining planet of Kessel, steal a batch of coaxium in its volatile raw form and race the cargo to the planet Savareen to refine it before it blows them all to smithereens. (No points for guessing roughly how quickly he’ll have to make that run.) But first, the crew needs a ship.
It would be a waste of a movie ticket to sit through “Solo” trying to guess which pieces of the final cut belong to Howard and which belong to Lord and Miller, although there are certainly hints of the “Lego Movie” directors’ style of insouciant cultural demythification in the scenes with Lando Calrissian, who Solo and Company seek out to try and gain ownership of his ship, the Millennium Falcon. Played by Glover as equal parts suave hustler and foppish brat, Calrissian gets all of the film’s best laughs—“No! That’s a custom!” he screams as one of his many capes is threatened during a firefight—and also serves as one-half of its most intriguing relationship. His droid, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), is engaged in a one-robot campaign to free her fellow machines from their servitude, frequently launching into Emma Goldman-style stump speeches and taking part in some charged banter with Calrissian that gives “Solo” its most surprising kinks.
If only Solo and Qi’ra had a fraction of that chemistry. For a film that is constantly nudging us in the ribs with allusions to the original “Star Wars” trilogy, it does “Solo” few favors to bring to mind the incendiary interplay between Ford and Carrie Fisher that gave those films so many of their standout moments. Clarke and Ehrenreich have little such spark, although that seems less the fault of the actors than the unimaginative relationship they’re given to work with. Ehrenreich in particular is enduringly watchable: He nails Ford’s cocky gait, his roguish eye-twinkle and his puffed-cheeked finger-pointing, and although the performance might initially come across as a highly skilled bit of mimicry, by the film’s end he’s managed to give the role a satisfying new spin.
Few would object if Ehrenreich were to reprise the character in future installments (“The Young Han Solo Chronicles?” “Wookiee and the Bandit?”), but a scruffy, nerf-herding smuggler such as Solo needs room to stretch and make trouble. After all, it took the same sort of unfettered imagination to produce both “A New Hope” and “The Phantom Menace.” If you aren’t willing to risk the latter, there’s not much chance of ending up with the former.