2.5 stars (out of 4)
It seems like fans have had a bad feeling about Solo: A Star Wars Story since its inception. No way a movie plagued with bad production buzz — and an eleventh-hour director change —can possibly capture the spirit of a young Harrison Ford in action. Right? Well, it can. The key is to keep those expectations low. So low. (Ba-dum-bum.)
A stand-alone origin tale about your favorite scoundrel, Solo is an uneven mash-up of lone outlaw Western, heist caper, longtime unrequited romance and old-fashioned space adventure. The film is largely free of the 41-year-old mythology that’s made the past two Star Wars episodes unmissable box-office smashes. This is good for those that want to be unburdened by the subtle nuances of Darth Vader’s legacy — and bad for those that view these Star Wars stand-alone pics as filler stop-gaps in between the Big Show.
The story is set about 10 years before Luke Skywalker first used a Lightsaber in a galaxy far, far away. Alden Ehrenreich is your charismatic main man, an Imperial Flight Academy drop-out, fugitive from authorities and aspiring pilot. Desperate to prove his salt as a thief in the galactic underworld — and find his way home to settle unfinished business — he embarks on a grand heist with his would-be mentor Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and former partner in crime Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). She may or may not be trustworthy. Along the long-winded journey, he aligns with a future Wookie copilot, Chewbacca, and matches wits with ultra-debonair smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, himself a walking a scene-stealer).
That’s a condensed version of a perfunctory plot that takes its time to kick in and then doesn’t know when to stop. The underlying point: Han experiences his own hero’s journey, throwing himself into danger so he can achieve his freedom. He must make hard choices and sacrifices to reach his goal. And he’s doing it in a galaxy where everyone is capable of scheming.
Han’s own Obi-Wan, Tobias, doesn’t teach him big lessons about the Force and distinguishing between the Rebellion and the Dark Side. Instead, he cynically warns him, “Assume everyone will betray you, and you will never be disappointed.”
By the same token … audiences that assume Ehrenreich, who’s appeared in semi-obscure films like Rules Don’t Apply and Hail Caesar!, can imbue Ford down to the scar on his chin is like asking George Lucas if he needs help paying his mortgage on the Skywalker Ranch. The answer is a hard no. The machismo Ford is the one of the biggest movies stars over the past 40-plus years for a reason. The best Ehrenreich can do it channel some of his Solo swagger. And while the physical resemblance is nil, the essence is indeed intact. In parts, anyway. It’s not a stretch to see how this misguided outcast evolves into a beloved, wily rascal. Wait until you see this guy mix it up with Lando at a backroom casino.
You will care about these characters. That’s of the utmost importance, because a Star Wars story on paper is rarely worth hologramming home about. Nobody goes in expecting an ingenious, polished script, and this one is formulaic to the extreme. Not only is the sequence of events predictable, the dialogue is noticeably lazy. Some of the chestnuts include “I know a guy…” “Give me a reason why I shouldn’t kill you now” and “trust no one.” When Harrelson intones to his crew before a mission, “stick to the plan and don’t improvise,” it doesn’t take Yoda to guess what happens next.
Take away the requisite outer-space mumbo jumbo, and this might as well be Action Movie Screenplay 101. (FYI, Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, coscripted this with his son, Jonathan.)
Director Ron Howard’s space jam scenes are far more effective. They’re vibrant and hyperkinetic and move along at light speed. Kids of all ages will delight in seeing Han and Chewie jawing back and forth behind the controls of the famous Millennium Falcon spaceship in an intergalactic chase. Only a true curmudgeon would complain that Solo lacks a wide-eyed adventurous whimsy. Though the veteran Oscar-winning director reined in the original directors’ comedy vision, he still keeps things loose and never lets his movie becomes a wacky, yuk-a-minute Guardians of the Galaxy also-ran.
Smart decision. Solo isn’t, nor shouldn’t be, a wise-cracking joke. There’s far too much at stake, even if every paying customer is aware that the title character will make it out of the movie alive. Put it all together and the result is a fun, if superfluous, summer popcorn movie that leaves itself wide open for another installment. No doubt Ford’s Han Solo would dismiss the entire franchise with a wink and a wry smile.
Solo: A Star Wars Story opens in theaters on Friday, May 25.