While watching the entertaining yet frustrating “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” a question keeps returning: We know why we like Han Solo, but why do we like him SO much?
Think back to his introduction in the original “Star Wars,” aka “A New Hope”.
For all we learn in that sequence, he might be a bad guy! Han wants as much money as he can get from our boyish hero and his grandfather-figure. Han shoots a green guy gunfighter style, leaves a few coins and says sorry about the mess.
For most of the movie, Han is looking out for Han. Not until the brilliant, final “Yah-HOO!” does the outlaw in the vest truly reveal his golden heart. To watch Harrison Ford as Solo was to think, “I want to be Han Solo!” and “That actor is a STAR.”
Again, why do we like him SO much? Is it the mythology, the cynical secularist in a world of religious Jedi who becomes as much a believer as he can? Or is Han nothing more than Ford’s charisma, a great-looking blaster and a beyond-loyal sidekick?
How much of that Han charisma do we get in “Solo?” Not a ton, to be honest. But that’s not necessarily a problem. Or rather, it’s not necessarily THE problem.
No, the problem here is the total lack of weirdness Disney allows into this franchise anymore. Aside from minor revelations, we are never, ever again going to be genuinely surprised by a “Star Wars” movie.
Directed by Ron Howard with the sort of frictionless, almost button-down smoothness Disney was presumably not getting with original helmers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and written by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, “Solo” is determined to have it all ways.
It wants to stand apart from the larger mythology — yet it goes out of its way to insert itself into that mythology. It wants to show us the origin of an outlaw — but it goes out of its way to soften any amoral edge the guy might have had.
“Solo” opens on Corellia, a planet of dank, industrial cities where starships are built and unwashed, Dickensian-seeming thieves and hustlers roam the streets, stealing the precious spaceship fuel coaxium (the film’s MacGuffin, if not quite its midichlorian).
Or zip down those streets, as does Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his pal/romantic interest Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), in a stolen speeder. The high-octane chase establishes that, even as this early age (16? 18? 25? Who knows?), Han, like the hot-rodders of George Lucas’ youth, knew his way around anything with an engine.
After extricating himself from a snake-like Fagin called Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt), Han and Qi’ra decide to escape from this de facto prison planet. Han wants to become a pilot, even in the Imperial navy if he must. He and Qi’ra are separated, and Han heads off to the flight academy.
Or not. Suddenly, it’s three years later, and Han is a grunt in the Imperial army and looking to get out ASAP. Game recognizing game, he notices that a few of the “soldiers” are running a scam and soon hooks up with Beckett (Woody Harrelson, fine), his partner Val (Thandie Newton, wasted completely) and pilot Rio Durant (a CGI-ed Jon Favreau). Following a genuinely savvy scene introducing Han to Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), it’s time for Han to start his life of crime.
Here is where the movie’s potential, both wasted and realized, comes into focus. “Solo” is a space Western, more or less, and the more it leans into that model, the more fun it is.
Beckett’s crew robs a train, because robbing trains is awesome, and robbing trains while there is a spaceship hovering to facilitate your escape is space-awesome. They soon run afoul of local crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), who just happens to be hanging out with, hello, Qi’ra. This can’t be good, right?
Soon, Han and crew are off to the mining planet Kessell (as in the Kessell Run) to pull a job. But first, they need a fast ship. And that ship, aka the Millennium Falcon, the coolest spaceship in movie history, belongs to one Lando Calrissian, a cape-wearing, possibly pansexual smoothie played by national treasure Donald Glover (sporting this weird accent that we’ll call “neo-Billy Dee Williams”).
Lando comes complete with droid co-pilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a sassy machine who may be in love with Lando and dreams of liberating her fellow machines.
Unsurprisingly, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Glover. He is the oddest element in a movie that screams out for more of them. What is with all the capes? What, exactly, is his relationship with L3? Holy cow, is he flirting with Han? How awesome is this dude?
But, even here, Glover seems circumscribed by the movie itself, which couldn’t feel more reshot-from-something-looser. The trailer for “Solo” is more lively than “Solo” — I would pull the ears off a gundark for the insouciant “it’s fine, we’re fine” bit from the trailer to be in the actual movie.
Surprisingly, Ehrenreich isn’t really one of the movie’s problems. Does he have a lot of Ford’s tics down, from the squinty smile to the exact way the guy shoots a blaster? Yes. Does he have Ford’s coaxium-powered charisma? Of course not. But this is young Han — could he really be as cool as he was/will be in “A New Hope”?
But is Ehrenreich’s Solo a criminal with a heart of gold or a hero pretending to be a crook? Somewhat disappointingly, “Solo” leans heavily on the latter.
But more than anything else, “Solo” falters, emotionally and cinematically, in the script’s insistence that instead of this movie being a cool, low-stakes, stand-alone story, it must tie in to the larger mythology, be it via a “Wait, what?” appearance of an old character or the implication that Han has more to do with a nascent rebellion than he thinks. This is Lawrence Kasdan at his stuffiest and most corporate, and it’s a shame.
Which is to say, “Solo” is definitely set in a world where Greedo shot first.
‘SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY’
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence and a weird joke about robot performance
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, iPic, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Moviehouse 620, Moviehouse Lantana, Pflugerville 20, Round Rock, Sky, Southpark, Stone Hill, Westgate. 3-D: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo South, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Pflugerville 20, Round Rock, Sky, Southpark, Stone Hill, Westgate. IMAX: Barton Creek, Bullock, Gateway