It’s fair to say that Solo flies into port rather less burdened by expectation than recent Star Wars movies. Anyone who pays even the faintest bit of attention to the behind-the-scenes goings-on in Hollywood must be aware that its original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller — the guys behind The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street— had a creative disagreement with Lucasfilm, leaving the film in the safe-as-cotton-wool-padded-houses hands of Ron Howard (a close chum of one George Lucas). As a result, you might be forgiven for expecting this origin story for the Galaxy’s greatest scoundrel to end up predictable and not entirely thrilling.
Well, the good news is that Solo doesn’t feel overly compromised or noticeably stymied by its production snafus. It’s a slick, swift-footed adventure which plays like a planet-hopping heist movie, and one which glides a long way on the charm of its leading man.
Before Lord and Miller departed, they definitely made the right choice with Alden Ehrenreich (previously best enjoyed on-screen as the smooth-faced Western star in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!). With a glowing smirk and a knack for the wisecrack, he fills Harrison Ford’s boots with rogueish panache — even if young Han himself spends much of his time here as the passenger in other, older characters’ schemes.
Not that he has much time to rest on his charms. Howard and father-son team writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan cram a hell of a lot of action and locations into the considerable running time. We zip from the industrial nightmare world of Corellia (which looks like Peaky Blinders’ Birmingham executed on a planetary scale) to a World War I-ish combat zone, to a mega-mountainous landscape where Han and his new crew — led by the scurrilous Beckett (Woody Harrelson) — pull off a high-speed over-and-under-monorail job. There’s a lot of spectacular imagination on show here, albeit thoughtfully framed in reassuringly familiar ways, as we appreciate further glimpses of life under the giant jackboot of the Galactic Empire. (Interestingly, we learn that the Imperial March is actually the theme music for the Empire’s holographic recruiting ads.)
It does, however, all whip by a bit too fast and comes a little too tangled in its crosses and double-crosses during the closing act. Interesting new characters come into, and head out of the frame a little too briskly, whether it’s Thandie Newton’s sultry career criminal Val, or Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the right-hand droid to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who believes in equal rights with organic life, and is utterly convinced Lando has a thing for her (intriguingly, neither the script nor Glover’s performance does much to convince us otherwise). And even Lando himself isn’t given as much screentime as Glover deserves; the ol’ smoothie feels rather sidelined.
Thankfully, however, Han’s closest companion is given exactly as much attention as you’d hope for. And we’re not talking about Clarke as Qi’Ra, who sadly turns out to be the film’s weakest link; as a romantic pairing, she and Ehrenreich sadly just don’t pop. You know who we mean, and the fans will feel generously serviced by the sequence in which Han and Chewie (now fully in the hands of Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo) first meet, tussling in a mud pit before joining forces against their tormentors. Watching their increasingly syncopating relationship develop is one of the movie’s biggest joys, Chewbacca quickly falling into place as Han’s towering, hairy conscience.
Then there’s the other relationship in the movie: Han and his beloved ship, the Millennium Falcon. Solo is as much the Kessel-running starship’s origin story as it is the title character’s, and without wanting to give away too many surprises, it’s great to see how the Falcon looks before she is turned into a hyperspacing bucket of junk: all shimmering and white and with an escape pod neatly filling the gap between those two front prongs.
Ultimately, this is a different kind of Star Wars film to any that have gone before, with only hints of the main saga’s bigger fate-of-the-galaxy picture. And while that means the story lacks the depth some might crave, it still offers plenty of fun, and (impressively for a prequel) the odd surprise along the way. Punch it, Chewie.
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