Review: 'Solo: A Star Wars Story'

Ron Howard returns to space, raids classic Hollywood in Star Wars opus
Alden Ehrenreich plays Han Solo, opposite Emilia Clarke, who plays Qi'ra in 'Solo: A Star Wars Story.'

You can't exactly blurb a film: "Lacks zeitgeist!" But as Ron Howard directs the back story of noble rogue Han Solo in the stand-alone Solo: A Star Wars Story, it has two principle disappointments. It's neither as full of revolutionary ardor as Rogue One, nor as touching as the last two installments, where seemingly immortal childhood heroes bit the dust.

Co-scripted by Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, this is certainly one of the most romantic of the 10 films so far. But it's also spotted with doughy patches, heavy info dumps and battle scenes that aren't quite coherent... even though the different sides helpfully use different colored lasers so you can always tell who is shooting whom.

The young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is just one more thieving kid on a gray-blue shipbuilding planet. He and girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) escape from the life of crime in a hotwired flying convertible, chased by the authorities and their alligator-mastiff hybrids. Forcibly separated from Qi'ra, Han joins the military to escape, and ends up in trench warfare on a mud-ball planet. He and his new wookie sidekick, Chewbacca, join a gang of deserters led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his wife, Val (Thandie Newton), and a quadruple-armed ape named Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau).

After a busted heist, the remains of the gang have to report to their crime boss Dryden Vos (a menacing Paul Bettany) in his penthouse headquarters. Vos belongs to some humanoid race that sports facial markings and severe conjunctivitis. He looks like he was clawed by a tiger who, in parting, sprayed his eyes.

Qi'ra is in the gangster's entourage, spurring a Gilda-like exchange: "How did you get out?" Han asks. "I didn't," she replies.

Having one last chance, Han and his gang propose a Wages of Fear style journey to ship back volatile superfuel. Part of the adventure involves recruiting the fancy gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) who, unlike Han, actually has a spaceship.

The striking Clarke recalls Audrey Hepburn, wrapped up in her wardrobe of furs and cocktail gowns. She's incandescent in Bradford Young's photography, particularly in her last shot in the film. And when the couple cuddle up in Lando's "cape room," a riot of velour, the lovers bring out some of the chemistry that was a part of The Empire Strikes Back.

But it's never meant to be taken entirely seriously. The reliable gags include Han saying, "Wherever I go to, it can't be worse than here..." a line as guaranteed of payoff as, "At least it's not raining!" In a final shootout, Ehrenreich stands in a tense, wide-legged crouch, as if he'd been studying old Western movie duelists from Red River on. Ehrenreich is already a star, but here he's playing Harrison Ford who was playing Humphrey Bogart; he doesn't look like someone who is going to grow up to be the gruff Ford—he looks like someone who is going to grow up to be Jack Nicholson.

The film's political angle is relegated to droid L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge). She's humorless about droid discrimination—it's as if Bender from Futurama had earned a BA in Robot Studies. Do note her passing line that speculates about human-'bot, uh, interfacing, a first for Star Wars. Children won't quite catch it, fortunately. The film's big moment of rebellion is a robot uprising with mechanical slaves lashing out in all directions, led by this crusader. She's almost an affecting character, but the easy laughs on her reflects Solo's lack of revolutionary ardor. It's a kind of betrayal of the fan who'd wear the rebel-scum uniform patch their coats.

Like George Lucas, Howard knows the allure of classic movies. A relentless heartwarmer in the past, Howard has improved a bit since his stodgy, sentimental '80s filmmaking. Both Inferno and Rush showed a speedier, sometimes abstract style. Howard's newly-got swiftness shows in percussive reaction shots—such as one of a tense Wookie, white-knuckling it as the Millenium Falcon cruises by a moon-sized, 120-eyed space creature. Chewy's baleful growls are some of the best lines in the movie.

Solo: A Star Wars Story
PG-13, 135 Mins.

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