If you've ever wondered what, exactly, the Kessel Run was and why it was such a big deal for the Millennium Falcon to have accomplished it in less than 12 parsecs, then Solo: A Star Wars Story is the movie for you. That is, of course, not all the movie has to offer in terms of pleasure and entertainment and carefully primed nostalgic button-pushing, but it is a telling metonym of sorts for its fundamental appeal. The second stand-alone live-action Star Wars movie, Solo would seem to be a no-brainer slam dunk, but it has always carried with it a certain amount of risk, particularly because it must ask its audience to reimagine one of the franchise's most beloved and memorable characters as a young man played by someone other than Harrison Ford.
This is not, of course, the first time that a younger version of one of Ford's iconic characters has been played by another actor. River Phoenix briefly played a teenage Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and the character was portrayed as a young man by Sean Patrick Flanery in two seasons of the television series Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992"93). Yet, something feels different here, perhaps because the rogue smuggler Han Solo was the role that made Harrison Ford, and it, perhaps better than any other (even Indiana Jones), captured his uniquely rough mix of charming, devil-may-care insubordination and thinly veiled romanticism. It's virtually impossible to imagine any other actor playing the role, which is why Kevin Spacey's spot-on impersonation of Christopher Walken-one of the front runners for the role back in 1976-running through Solo's lines in an old Saturday Night Live skit is still so hilarious.
Yet, here we are with a Star Wars prequel that fills in the blanks about Han Solo's life before he met Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine-that "wretched hive of scum and villainy." Han has always been the original trilogy's most interesting character, a genuine contradiction of a man who is part rogue, part hero, part charmer, part doofus, part con artist, part romantic. At its best, Solo captures the origins of that unique mix of characteristics, portraying the young Han Solo as a man trying to find his voice and his identity and having to, if not quite forcibly, at least with some effort fit himself into the mold of outlaw smuggler. As one character tells him late in the film, he's "the good guy," even if he doesn't want to believe it. He's a do-gooder in scoundrel's clothing.
The job of convincing us that another actor can embody Han Solo falls to Alden Ehrenreich, a relative newcomer who some may recall as the drawling cowboy actor from the Coens' Hail, Caesar! (2016). Ehrenreich looks just a bit like a young Ford, but not really, and while he enunciates some lines in the way we might imagine Ford would, he otherwise takes the role in his own direction, eschewing a straight-on impersonation in favor of something more nuanced and meaningful-a portrait of Solo-in-progress. He has the lopsided cocky grin and some of the mannerisms, and it's just enough to be convincing without sliding into simple masquerade. I'm afraid that too many viewers are going to underappreciate what he has accomplished because it doesn't always feel like a young Harrison Ford.
The screenplay by the father-and-son team of Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan is an intriguing mix of fill-in-the-blanks from the original trilogy (How did Han hook up with his Wookie partner Chewbacca? When did he first meet the rival smuggler Lando Calrissian? Why are there so many bounties on his head? Does he always shoot first?) and a stand-alone tale of criminal intrigue, con artistry, and double and triple crosses. We first meet Han as a romantic young street rat trying to make it on the ship-building planet Corellia with his dedicated girlfriend, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). Their escape plan doesn't work out as planned, and Han winds up spending several years in the Imperial Army before breaking out on his own as a smuggler-for-hire. He has a muddy first meeting with his future Wookie first mate Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and joins forces with Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a grizzled, cynical career criminal who has taken a dangerous, but lucrative job stealing for Dryden Bod (Paul Bettany), a particularly nasty Star Wars version of Al Capone or John Gotti. Han discovers that Qi'ra is now involved with Dryden, definitely professionally and possibly romantically, and their will-they-or-won't-they get back together vibe gives Solo a unique romantic tension not seen since The Empire Strikes Back (1980), which, not incidentally, the elder Kasdan co-wrote. Han also develops a tense bromance of sorts with the aforementioned Lando (Donald Glover), a smooth operator who becomes both Han's chief rival and his partner in crime.
Director Ron Howard, who took over the reins from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller after they developed "creative differences" with overseeing producer Kathleen Kennedy, manages the proceedings with slick efficiency while also keeping some of the humor that Lord and Miller were apparently putting into hyperdrive (not that anyone should have been surprised, given that their resume is otherwise filled entirely with raunchy comedies and hyperkinetic animated kids' movies). Howard's history with Star Wars goes way back, given that he was the star of American Graffiti (1973), the George Lucas-directed nostalgia-driven teen dramedy (which also featured Harrison Ford in a small role) whose boffo box-office success essentially paid for Star Wars (1977). Howard also directed the Lucas-produced fantasy flop Willow (1988) and was reportedly offered the chance to direct Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace (1999), which he turned down due to the enormity of the responsibility. He apparently doesn't feel so threatened any more, partially because a new Star Wars movie is now pretty much expected every year, whereas in the late '90s they were resurrecting a franchise that had lain largely dormant for a decade and a half. There was some balking from fans when Howard took over the movie, but he is a natural fit for the material (much better than Lord and Miller), given his experience with virtually every genre under the sun. He's a much more versatile and agile director than his detractors give him credit for, and he manages the various tones and moods of Solo in a way that makes it more than just a simple nostalgia machine.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Lucasfilm Ltd.
Overall Rating: (3)
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