This probably won’t come off well to hardcore Star Wars fans, but someone has to say it out loud: Harrison Ford’s Han Solo actually wasn’t much of a scoundrel.
We’ll let that sink in for a moment…
Yes, in the original version of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope he shot first and his initial scenes in the cantina establish him as something of a braggart, but for all intents and purposes, Harrison Ford’s smuggler was something of a crusty curmudgeon who for 40 years has traded on his reputation as a risk-taker.
As embodied by arguably the most earnest actor in Hollywood, Ford’s Solo usually played the role of reluctant worrier in response to the more impetuous Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia.
Solo: A Star Wars Story, Lucasfilm and the Walt Disney Company’s second foray into Star Wars stories that fit in-between the margins of the core trilogies, introduces fans to a Solo that is actually leaping head first into long odds with a smile and a swagger, rather than being dragged along for the ride. And while that alone makes Solo a worthwhile two hours spent in a galaxy far, far away, its between-the-margins reason for being feels... well... marginal.
Like its ‘anthology’ predecessor Rogue One, Solo shows few signs of the turmoil that surrounded the film for most of its production. Director Ron Howard, screenwriters Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, and very-likely executive producer Kathleen Kennedy have managed to piece together a story and a tone that’s seamless and organic, and not frankensteined from disperate parts in the editing room. Solo never plays like it shifted gears from a more comedic tone to one that “feels” more like a Star Wars movie.
In fact, a more overtly comedic tone might have served the entire endeavor well, giving Solo its own identify within the greater whole. While that may have come off derivative of the welcome tonal shift Disney-Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy gave the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it might have worked a little better than the final product, which feels more like a very special multi-part episode of Star Wars Rebels rather than an integral piece of the puzzle like Rogue One.
If all this sounds like it’s getting into the weeds of Star Wars minutia, that’s sort of corner Disney has painted itself in by scheduling a new Star Wars movie every year for the foreseeable future.
It’s an understandable conundrum. Unlike Marvel who is in a way still establishing its identity with each new piece, Lucasfilm has to serve an audience with very specific wants and expectations. Solo feels like movie that wants to meet very specific expectations rather than challenge them, the latter of which are the parts of Rogue One and The Last Jedi that work best.
This sense of running in place to a known destination is no fault of the cast. Woody Harrelson is reliably watchable as Han’s mentor Beckett and Donald Glover plays cool and effective tribute to (but not outright imitation of) Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian. If anything, Solo feels like it shorted Calrissian to a degree. Every Star Wars fan knows why he has to be there, but he never totally feels like an indispensable character.
The rest of the ensemble are mostly fine in limited roles. Frankly, Jon Favreau’s voice coming out of a CGI character proves a little distracting, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s all-too-human L3-37 seems like a Tinder match with Rogue One’s K-2SO waiting to happen.
Which brings us to star Alden Ehrenreich, saddled with the unenviable task of trying to spiritually connect with one of the most iconic roles in movie history. You can throw away concerns borne of rumors about emergency acting coaches being brought into the production - Ehrenreich is a perfectly agreeable lead, so long as you’re not expecting a young Harrison Ford. There a few subtle homages to mannerisms (perhaps the purpose of the purported coach?) but Ehrenreich's Solo is decidedly his own man... which, for the record, is a good thing.
While it may just be the product of being the main protagonist rather than a supporting lead, Ehrenreich’s Solo is cockier, seems genuinely more morally pliant, and more the aggressor than Ford’s Solo ever was. Yes, like his more mature counterpart young Solo also has the secret heart of gold despite himself, but seeing the character flirt with the edges of more scoundrel-like behavior with a wink and a smirk after four films of him being the reluctant hero is a kick. It just doesn’t carry a movie in a way that will likely fulfill very high expectations.
Solo sometimes awkwardly shoehorns in Easter eggs and nods to continuity to fill in holes that didn’t need filling. If you're expecting a protracted explanation of what the Kessel Run actually was, you're in luck. But all the filling-in-the-blanks makes it feel like Howard and Co. went for Episode III 3/4 rather than a respite. How the market embraces a film that tries to be a core film but just doesn’t have the gravity to qualify will probably go a long way to determining what the next “anthology” film will be ... or if they’ll even be another.
Solo is a perfectly fine evening at the movies. But it could also be perfectly fine evening of pay-per-view by say August. Which is somewhat new ground.