Director: Ron Howard
12A | 2h 15min | Action, Adventure, Fantasy | 24 May 2018 (UK)
Well, isn't this a blast of shameless fun to clear away the spilled tears of the last two grim Star Wars movies? Steered safely into port by veteran director Ron Howard and writers Lawrence and John Kasdan after original directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired by Lucasfilm, Solo - which gives us the backstory of the titular rogue and smuggler indelibly played by Harrison Ford in the original Star Wars films- is by no means the expected car crash that the behind-the-scenes drama implied. It is just a lot better as a piece of charm-reliant light entertainment, when it is racing ahead in search of the next scrap to throw its misfit group of characters into, than when it tries to get Han Solo on the psychiatrist's couch.
A solid rather than spectacular 'Star Wars Story' set about ten years before A New Hope, with appealing vibes here and there of the western and heist genres but with little of the comic zaniness promised by Lord and Miller, Solo doesn't really give our main character - played with charm at a nice mid-point between sheer impersonation and a more youthful optimistic take by Alden Ehrenreich- a rich character arc so much as it gives him to us mostly fully-formed but just with a tad more 'Han-ish' flourishes coming into play as the film goes on. After a tragically uninteresting and confusingly-shot (so much of this film, shot by DP Bradford Young, seems to take place in gloom) initial twenty minutes of where we see orphan Han attempt to escape his dreary existence as a crime syndicate scamp on the shipbuilding world Corellia, the plot wisely whisks him off-planet, through three years of Imperial Navy training and undistinguished military service, and gets him swiftly paired up with his lifelong companion and first mate Chewbacca the wookie. Once spectacular intergalactic playboy and gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, stealing every scene) and his intriguing rebellious-minded droid L3 (a nicely left-field motion capture and vocal performance from Phoebe Waller-Bridge who plays L3 as if she is Lando's ex-lover) enter the picture and a double cross-heavy heist gets going, the film really finds its gear, with enough wit, charm and thrills to keep it flying over the bumps.
An action sequence set aboard a twisting monorail train is a real highlight, as is watching Han gleefully take the controls and thread the Falcon crazily through an asteroid field (even if the fast editing and low lighting make it hard to see what is happening all the time). It kind of makes sense, given that elder Han himself admitted in The Force Awakens that he prefers to act first and figure stuff out later, that Solo would itself be a film that works much better when it is keeping everyone on the move rather than stopping to get contemplative. Solo isn't so much a chance to see a fan-favourite character being moulded in intriguing ways before our eyes as much as it is a fan's best excuse to soak up Star Wars nostalgia as we see Han getting loads of cool familiar stuff and hanging out with equally cool and familiar characters. Given the time jump the film crams in in the first act, a lot of Han's core skills are gained off-screen anyway: we never see the guy take a single flying lesson, but by the time he gets his hands on the newer, shinier Millennium Falcon starship, he already is a pro. Only occasionally are we allowed to linger to see the birth and maturation of some more complex key traits; in particular, Han's dislike of authority and the bullying it allows, and his instinctive siding with the underdog that springs from that. Other developments are handled in a surprisingly mundane or even cheesy fashion. Guess how Han got his iconic blaster and low-slung holster? Someone in the crime world gave it to him! Guess how Han got his name? An imperial officer...picked it for him during his shockingly brief induction into the Imperial Navy. Ummm...
Alongside Ehrenreich and new Chewbacca actor Joonas Suatamo, is Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke who plays Han's long-lost love from Corellia, Qi'ra, which is not an ideal role to be cast in given we know Han's real true love lies further down the line for him. Clarke loses out also through a mix of not getting the lion's share of the impactful or comedic dialogue and having her character's real life-shaping drama take place offscreen, though a last-minute and surprising revelation suggests sequels to this film are where her character could take a really interesting turn. As Han's mentor and veteran smuggler Tobias Beckett, Woody Harrelson does his world-weary veteran schtick as competently as you'd expect, imparting a few somewhat obvious life lessons to the young rogue (i.e , the earth-shattering warning of 'don't trust anyone'). But because the film is so much vibrant when all these characters are finally crammed together in the Millennium Falcon cockpit racing ahead of Imperial star destroyers in the Kessel Run, or just bickering and double-crossing each other, I found myself thinking the whole piece could have worked much better if it just started cold with Han facing off against Lando in a card game for the Falcon, explaining what happened in just two or three sentences when asked what brought him to the table.
As someone who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy, who will probably die in the middle of cycle eight of these movies, it still remains impossible to resist a grin when Han and Chewie are doing their thing; the 'thing' usually being trying to figure their way out of a scrape with lots of bickering and quips as all their plans get shot to hell. Star Wars creator George Lucas's ingenious pairing of the swaggering 'do now, think later' rogue and the sensitive voice of conscience who just happens to walk in the hulking shape of a hairy monster still proves as weird but sweetly charming as ever. Taking over the mantle of the Wookie from Peter Mayhew, Joonas Suatamo really nails Chewbacca's particular walk, his flashes of brute physicality (one thing I liked about this film is the way we really see Chewbacca displaying his power, throwing people across rooms and punching through columns) but also gives us the more subtle head tilts and eye movements that mean that we really don't need Han to translate for us.
Judging from my reaction to this new Star Wars standalone film, I don't really care to have the gaps in my imagination as to how Han and Chewie met paved over by Star Wars's current owners Disney; I would much prefer to see these two rogues flip the bird to the Empire and ride around in the Falcon all day, always just failing to make that fortune. With the real 'back' part of the story done now, lets hope the next Solo adventure - and the ending of this film makes it pretty clear there will be one - focuses less on the 'development' bit, and just gives us more of the fun characters and action we know.