The Force. The Light Side. The Dark Side. The Rebellion. The Empire. The Fate of the Galaxy. None of that matters much in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” a breezy tale about the seedy underbelly of the “Star Wars” universe and a handful of characters who help populate it: namely scoundrel/smuggler Han Solo, his Wookiee copilot Chewbacca, femme fatale girlfriend Qi’ra, mentor in all things crooked Tobias Beckett, and the smoothest double-crosser in the galaxy, Lando Calrissian.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is the first entry in the “Star Wars” saga to focus entirely on character over consequence, and while that does lower the stakes a significant amount, it also allows for the movie to have a whole lot of fun with itself in a way that feels consistent with its overall tone. This film needs you to like its rogues gallery of galactic outcasts in order for it to succeed, and using that barometer alone it passes with flying colors.
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Director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13”) is known for being a workmanlike deliverer of perfect adequacy through his four decades as a filmmaker. That made him Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy’s ideal choice to replace original “Solo: A Star Wars Story” directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Lego Movie,” “21 Jump Street”) after the production hit some turbulence and the pair was let go. Howard’s work has never had a readily identifiable style of its own, so it makes sense that he would be capable of adhering to the established look and feel of the “Star Wars” franchise.
What stands out in “Solo” are a handful of skillfuly-executed action setpieces– the Maelstrom sequence received a big round of applause during my screening– and its uniformly excellent cast. Relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich— breakout star of the Coen Brothers’ riotous 2016 comedy “Hail, Caesar!”– nails the charmingly free-spirit of the now-iconic Han Solo character without ever succumbing to an attempted impression of the role’s forebearer Harrison Ford. But it’s Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian and his droid compatriot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Amazon’s “Fleabag”) who will become instant fan favorites from the supporting players.
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The story follows Han from his years as a street urchin on the shipyard-dotted backwater planet of Corellia through to his early experiences as an outlaw, working among Beckett (Woody Harrelson of “Cheers” fame) and his crew as they run jobs for fearsome gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany from Marvel’s recent smash “Avengers: Infinity War”). I won’t spoil where it goes from there, but rest assured many of the plot beats are easy to predict if you’re at all familiar with Star Wars lore, though the movie does indeed save a couple of big surprises for its third act.
What legendary screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (“The Empire Strikes Back,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and his lifelong Lucasfilm-devotee son Jonathan Kasdan (“Freaks and Geeks,” “Dawson’s Creek”) have done is transplanted a long list of heist-movie tropes onto the Star Wars framework– a concept that works well enough but never quite breaks any new ground, narrative-wise. The script does also– as predicted– contain a number of almost groan-worthy on-the-nose moments setting up Han’s backstory (think a feature-length version of that opening Young Indy sequence from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”), but ultimately it’s all in good fun and mostly forgivable.
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The other minor detriment to my overall enjoyment of “Solo” is that the villain– or the character that turns out to be the villain, I won’t ruin the specifics of that here– ended up feeling a little undercooked to me. Through its forty-plus years of existence, Star Wars has spawned so many memorable bad guys that it’s easy to feel disappointed when a new one doesn’t stack up to the legacy.
At the end, though, I appreciated “Solo: A Star Wars Story” for what it is: a tremendously fun romp in my favorite space fantasy series. And heck, there are even some dangling threads that– though one could claim they’re technically tied up in existing “Star Wars” movies– actually left me wanting more with this cast, in this time period. And wanting more is never a bad thing.
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“Solo: A Star Wars Story” opens Friday, March 25th in theaters nationwide.