Solo: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Donald Glover, and Emilia Clarke
Reber’s Rating: B+
As I was indulging in the latest film from Lucasfilm since their absorption into the House of Disney – Solo: A Star Wars Tale, not to be confirmed with the cheesy 1996 Mario Van Peoples action thriller – I found myself giggling at one point. Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Garrett stands in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, his finger squarely pointed on the chest of Alden Ehrenreich’s cocky yet affable Han Solo. “The only way this is going to work – stick to the plan,” Garrett emphasizes. “Do not improvise.”
Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned here from that sliver of dialogue. Follow the script, follow the mold, shoot everything on time and without wandering off course, you’ll get a fun heist movie that is unlike anything ever seen in Star Wars lore in 41 years. You know – break the mold, flip the script, show audiences a whole other side of characters people thought they knew, focus on their beginnings and how they all first met without being a good-versus-evil type of flick. Then again, stray from the plan as written by a legend like Lawrence Kasdan and let your egos run amok against Kathleen Kennedy – well, you get fired from your movie and a more capable efficient director will reshoot 85 percent of your footage and save the day.
Regardless of who the real winner is, Solo is much more a rollicking fun thrill ride than I expected from the drab advertising campaign Lucasfilm employed over the last few months. I expected to be disappointed but, instead, I found myself in absolute awe and lost in the mesmerizing performances of Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke, and – yes – Alden Ehrenreich. The trailers don’t do much justice about what to expect, the promo trailers feeling sloppily edited together in a rush, but Ehrenreich is an absolute dead ringer for Han Solo. Despite the troubles in production last summer, Ron Howard has successfully saved this movie from being written off as generic, though some early pacing problems do bog down a solid half of the film but are saved by the climax.
By now we all know that original helmers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were notoriously fired from Solo and Ron Howard was rushed in to fix the movie. The details of the hectic set before Lord and Miller were dismissed depict a world of chaos, scenes being shot scores of times just to get different angles and takes. When all was said and done, Ron Howard ended up reshooting a massive 70 percent of Solo. Honestly, given his pedigree as a professional and nailing scenes within two takes, Ron Howard has seamlessly finished up this origin tale with hardly any indication of on-set troubles. I’ve always admired how Lord and Miller test the waters with their films, trying to see which angle works best to proceed with a joke or with thematic material. However, their style doesn’t feel like it fits in with the world of Han Solo. Howard’s delivered film spews over with a sleek coolness that you’d expect from any other heist movie, yet still manages to throw in some surprises that, much like The Last Jedi this past December, make you think you know what’ll happen when you’re thrust in the wrong direction.
Unlike the other Star Wars film that totally changed the mold on single-story tales – 2016’s Rogue One, a very visceral and fulfilling stand-alone – Solo is somewhat of an odd bird. The script, spearheaded by Star Wars architect Lawrence Kasdan with son Jonathan in tow, is a bit clunky in spots, trying to introduce audiences to characters that sometimes disappear with a snap, whilst others seem to have much more depth written into their structure. The film is an origin tale wrapped in a race-against-time caper with a dash of heist affair sprinkled in. The main problem is that Solo struggles to maintain its identity on occasion, spending nearly half the film trying to figure out what genre the narrative falls into for audiences. It’s of no fault of the cast assembled to bring the words to life but more of the dour times our characters are living in and how the locales are very drab. For example, Corellia isn’t going to be a glamorous setting when the planet is home to the Empire’s efforts to build an array of star cruisers and fighters. The planet is overpopulated, highly industrial, and teeming with distrust and disloyalty.
What sinks the film the most is the pacing. No matter how charming Glover’s Lando is while playing sabacc or how Han’s wide grimace tries to save his hide from trouble, the film’s pace is wildly errant and struggles to balance coherence on genre. The most compelling bits of the film shine in the final hour, our rag-tag crew gathered in full gallivanting across the quadrant to complete their fool’s errand. Everything before the final hour-plus is sometimes a chore to maintain interest, and writing that sentences pains me. I feel like the material that Ron Howard was forced shoot again lies in that first hour, trying to reel in the crowd with how all of our characters first met. Not to say the early scenes are a total disaster but the scenes ebb and flow unceremoniously, characters only getting a few minutes to shine before they’ve done nothing to further the plot, disappearing from frame without a proper farewell. Once Howard settles in and we see Kasdan’s script finally get its bearings at the midway point, we have a movie that’s half over but redeemed by the charm of its cast and the surprises that await those who haven’t given up on this tale. I don’t fault Kasdan’s script so much, but trying to piece the film together after a wrecked production cannot be ease at all.
The cast is the saving grace by the film’s end. A cast this large could easily pad a film that should be three hours long but, for pacing sake, Solo‘s 135 minute run-time attempts to balance all of the players in this game. As much as I would have loved to have witnessed Michael K. Williams as thuggish brute Dryden Vos, we have to settle with Paul Bettany instead. Is it wrong I kept thinking of Vision/Jarvis every time his boozy ego took command of a scene? Probably but Bettany has always been a scene stealer and makes wise of his limited time onscreen. A wide variety of familiar faces show up to add a dash of spice and flavor to the mix. Jon Favreau and Thandie Newton check in as two of Tobias Beckett’s companions, all for the money and the glory but not for the trouble that follows them again. Warwick Davis shows up as
Wicket Willow a marauder who, for a hot minute, made me wonder if he was protecting a baby from an evil queen. Alas, he wasn’t, but the wink to Davis’ 1988 role of heroic dwarf is not missed a single bit. Harrelson is admirable as the mentor to Solo, a gruff loner who doesn’t stay in one place long or trusts anyone, looking to get a price off his head that’s dogged him for years. (Sounds familiar, in shades of foreshadowing of a life Han could have not had – but you can’t tell a hungry young adult what to do.)
I will say, Donald Glover’s Lando is not what I expected to see on-screen at all either. Of all the roles filled in Solo, Glover’s casting and performance nearly swipes the rug from under Alden Ehrenreich’s feet. Lando at this point isn’t who he is later in life at all. Oh, he’s still very much a smooth talking gentleman but yet a part-time crook and full-time cheat who does what is necessary to win money. Though Lando is more of a side character who gets a fair amount of screen-time in Solo, I really wanted to see more of what Glover’s interpretation had to offer. We get a sense that he wants to shed his bad boy ways and go legit, unsure of his future ambitions but aware smuggling is not his calling. His Lando is delightfully spot on and, while not an full impression of Billy Dee Williams’ portrayal (as it shouldn’t be), is a charismatic treasure and marvelous addition to Solo.
Really though, let’s talk about Alden Ehrenreich. The 29-year-old has had an uphill battle to prove himself worthy of filling Harrison Ford’s shoes. No, his voice sounds nothing like Ford’s but, hot damn, Ehrenreich’s depiction of Han Solo is right on the money. Say what you want about the young actor, but he oozes the same type of charm and pomp that Harrison Ford contained when we first met Han Solo in A New Hope. This Han Solo is the same stubborn pilot we’ve known for years. He’s an ace pilot, though no one ever took him seriously in his quest to become the galaxy’s finest pilot. He’s eager and hungry, willing to do what’s needed to get what he wants even if lying to save his own hide. Ehrenreich may look nothing like Ford but he’s certainly learned from the originator of our favorite scruffy-looking nerf herder. The mannerisms, the movements, even the smile. Ford can’t play Han Solo forever and, if anyone’s to take up the mantle, then Ehrenreich is the right fit to grow into the role. Harrison’s even given the kid his blessing, having mentored him through Solo‘s shooting. Give Ehrenreich a chance like we’ve given Joonas Suatomo as Chewbacca. You will NOT be disappointed.
At the end, after a couple of did-that-just-happen moments that make you want a sequel to come out next year – and I’ve no doubt we’ll get our prayers answered – Solo is better than most origin tales we’ve endured throughout the years. I never thought I needed to know how Han, Chewie, and Lando all met and struck their enduring friendship. Yet, here we are, and their interactions are an absolute delight to behold on the big screen. Perhaps with Ron Howard on board from the beginning without the pressures of trying to keep audiences happy, a sequel could just kick back and have some more heist hi-jinks without the need to appease fanboys. We’ve got the Millennium Falcon we all know and love. The camaraderie with Han, Chewie, and Lando. A lost love stewing about. And years to go before the events of A New Hope. Just make sure the sequel counts and the chosen director just follows the damn plan. Improv doesn’t always work, especially with a character like Han Solo.