‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ Review: Never tell Ron Howard the odds

By the time Solo: A Star Wars Story will be released to a presumably boffo box office take on May 25, it will have been roughly 13 years since the prospect of a young Han Solo on film was given genesis by George Lucas. The OG originally wanted a young Solo to make an appearance in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, and had to settle for a sole Chewbacca cameo during the Battle of Kashyyyk, but ol’ Georgie never totally gave up on the idea.

The abandoned Star Wars TV series, meant to air in the latter half of the aughts, would have presumably featured the character in some fashion (funnily enough, that same series would provide the genesis for the other Star Wars Story, Rogue One, as well) and as soon as Lucasfilm was purchased by Disney in 2012, the rumor mill started up again in full force until it was finally confirmed by the Mouse, with The Lego Movie maestros Phil Lord and Chris Miller at the helm. That was a bad omen, and the legendarily troubled production of the movie — that featured Lord and Miller being fired mid-production and getting replaced by the significantly less Film Twitter-anointed Ron Howard — seemed almost like a biblical plague caused by the mere execution of the concept.

Happily, Opie has done a pretty great job with the scraps he’s been given, and he’s been able to craft a Star Wars film that’s visually unlike anything that’s come before it, while retaining some of that key space opera essence via an interesting script by father-son duo Jake and Lawrence Kasdan, the latter who was essential in crafting both Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark back in the ’80s. It’s a damn good time at the movies.

Solo, of course, is about Luke Skywalker. Just kidding, it’s about Han Solo, here played by the excellent Alden Ehrenreich, and his rise from the streets of the ship-building planet Corellia to being one of the most infamous smugglers in the history of the Galactic Empire. We witness him at his lowest early on, thieving in order to keep his head above water, through his enlistment in the Imperial Academy, where he’s pushed out to the frontlines as a grunt instead of the pilot that he hopes that he’ll become one day. It’s there that he meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and his first gang, headed up by the man who will become his mentor, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and they embark on a heist that nearly winds up getting the entire gang killed.

This puts Solo, Chewie, and Beckett in the crosshairs of the villainous Dryden Vos, head of the Crimson Dawn syndicate, and they’ll have to have the score of the lifetime in order to settle their debts with him. Vos sends his associate Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) along with the gang in order to keep an eye on them, who Han knows from his childhood on Corellia but whose true motivations remain vague. Along the way, they’ll pick up a pilot for the mission, the rogue Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and board his super-fast ship the Millennium Falcon in order to do the job. The Kasdans make a great screenwriting pair, and they bring some surprisingly interesting thematic stuff to the table, about honor between thieves and staying true to one’s self, I guess, but they nail in each and every way how to do a prequel without seeming cloying. Sure, we get a few fun nods to the original trilogy, but they’re never overt and in your face (though some deep-cut references will astound dedicated nerds), and I think you could watch this film without knowing a single thing about Star Wars and have a particularly good time with it.

But enough about plotting and thematics, what you’re probably most interested in is how the cast fares, especially when they’re trying to live up to performances that have become iconic over the course of the last 40 years. Ehrenreich is pretty damn good, and once you see him in action, the similarities in his demeanor and his presence to Harrison Ford only grow, but he’s still doing his own thing. He’s vulnerable and impulsive at first, before his arrogance and cock-sure nature comes to the forefront, and his friendship with Chewie comes naturally, which makes the slow build of the first third of the film.

He’s not doing an impression, which unfortunately can’t be said about Glover’s Lando, and while Glover’s still great in the role (he has some of the film’s best jokes, with only several coming at the expense of his capes), the oscillation between what Glover wants to be doing, presumably a variation on his own well-crafted screen persona, and what he’s required to do here, which is essentially a tribute to Billy Dee Williams, prevents it from being as interesting as it could be. That’s presumably because of the emotional transformation that Han undergoes over the course of the film and the leeway that allows Ehrenreich, but it’s still a slight disconnect that hampers the evolution of an important relationship. Clarke is Clarke, and her plucky attitude belies a sadness buried deep beneath her character: I imagine her casting hinges on the delivery of a single line, which has more real emotion in it than in the entirety of any Gareth Edwards-directed film.

The rest of the newcomers are predictably forgettable — Harrelson and Thandie Newton are wasted, though the former is at least given a few moments of gunslinging fun, and Bettany’s heavy is a non-factor meant to preserve a pretty crazy third act reveal — with two key exceptions. The first, Rio Durant, is an alien pilot, voiced by Jon Favreau, who slowly warms to Han, has a few effective moments early on, and plays a large part in establishing how oppressively shitty life is for outlaws in the shadow of the syndicates and the Empire. The second is the standout character of the film, L3-37, portrayed by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Lando’s second in-command and purveyor of some much-needed adult humor into the Star Wars saga. She’s foul-tempered and significantly funnier than K-2SO, who feels kind of quaint now that this character has been introduced. I don’t want to reveal too much more about her personality or arc in the film, because watching it unfold is both a delight and somewhat of a spoiler for some of the second act’s best moments.

However, the film’s real star is cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma), who takes the grime of your average Star Wars palate and ups it to 11, which perfectly compliments Howard’s choices of locales. His raw action filmmaking brings an unparalleled energy to the proceedings, more Greengrass than Kurosawa, and it’s a large enough difference even from recent in-universe examples like Rian Johnson’s carefully choreographed lightsaber duels in Last Jedi and Edwards’ LOUD NOISES in Rogue One that it feels notable. The pair draw a lot from classic westerns — a beach standoff feels practically ripped from Leone, and a train robbery is evocative of Butch Cassidy in more ways than one — but even the standard blockbuster action fare feels fresh and interesting.

The much-feared Kessel Run sequence is a highlight of the film, which features an impressive color scheme that changes midway through the setpiece, and to be able to put those words into print after all the moaning and groaning I’ve done about how bad of an idea this movie was is colossally fucking weird. Some of the ideas, like a World War I-esque set-piece at the start of the film feel a bit more interesting in theory rather than execution (there’s only so much fog one can take before the action loses all sense of geography), but for the most part, the filmmaking on display rivals some of the best in the series.

To say that this is anywhere near the level of a non-prequel numbered installment is a bit ridiculous, but Solo is significantly better than most of the Expanded Universe stuff that has come out of the Disney era, with the slight exception of the television show Rebels. It’s done the best job of altering the Star Wars formula while maintaining that core essence, and it’s held together with real character work and some spectacular action sequences that put the last third of Rogue One to shame.

It’s one side-story that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of, and its open-ended ending (and Ehrenreich’s slip of the tongue at a press event a few weeks back) suggests more interesting stories to come with this ensemble and possibly from this director. All in all, Solo is probably the best possible version of this story to make it to screen, and you can tell that this is a labor of love for Howard. His movie is charming, plucky and, at its core, good, even if it’s a little rough around the edges, much like its main character, and that’s probably the best compliment one can give it.

Solo: A Star Wars Story hits theaters on May 25.

Featured image via Disney.