It was one common complaint-as-question among many leveled at the Star Wars prequel trilogy: With all the Jedi, Padawans, royalty, and Gungans running around, where was the Han Solo figure—the lovable rogue to cut through the series’ considerable mumbo-jumbo? Now the newly prolific Lucasfilm has provided a belated answer in the form of Solo: A Star Wars Story, the second of its sorta-standalone projects unburdened with episode numbers or Skywalkers. Solo, which takes place between Revenge Of The Sith’s fall of the Republic and Han’s accidental hooking up with the rebellion in A New Hope, follows its hero on a formative adventure, an entrée into the smuggling business during which he grapples with a love from his past, tries to make his bones as a pilot, and meets certain key figures from his future, including a caped frenemy and a right-hand Wookiee. All of this table-setting for A New Hope raises another fair question: The prequels may have been in want of a Solo figure, but does Solo himself really need a prequel?
The answer is probably not, which makes it all the more impressive how Solo is able to sidestep this inevitable conclusion, or at least delay it for an entertaining two-plus hours. Though it spares the audience a childhood flashback, the movie begins with Han (Alden Ehrenreich) as a young man embroiled in the underworld of Corellia. He and his special lady friend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are desperate to escape from under one of the many thumbs of the wormy boss Lady Proxima, a life that, briefly glimpsed, looks a bit like Oliver Twist crossed with The Fast And The Furious. When the young lovers are separated, Han tries his luck as an Empire recruit, hoping for a chance to fly his own ship. On the battlefield, he meets Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton), among others—this movie has a lot of introductions, of characters old and new—and finagles a spot on their crew. Most of the characters have their sights on coaxium, an ultra-powerful hyperfuel.
This makes Solo the second Star Wars Story in a row to kinda-sorta focus on assembling a ragtag group of characters for a daring theft. Solo works more as a heist picture than Rogue One, but neither can resist throwing its schemers into armed combat as soon as possible. (Yes, this is still the Star Wars series, but would it kill the producers to try their hand at quieter, more suspenseful larceny at some point?) The movie doesn’t just rush past opportunities to sink into its various tactile, well-rendered settings; it doesn’t even make time for a classic laying-out-the-heist-plan sequence.
Still, the action sequences, including a sci-fi train robbery and a smash-and-grab infiltration, unfold with the efficient professionalism often associated with director Ron Howard. Though his past peaks have been human-scale comedies, Howard has also shown a willingness to experiment with his style in recent years, particularly in his recent collaborations with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. He finds another distinctive DP here, as the textural style of Solo seems to come largely from Bradford Young (Arrival). Young’s work isn’t far removed from the darker lensing of Greig Fraser on Rogue One, but it’s also true to his own gorgeously murky color palette, perfect for the movie’s underbellies and outer rims, and expressive ground-level compositions. One such shot simply follows Han closely as he backs his way into the Millennium Falcon in the middle of a firefight, and it’s one of the coolest little moments in a movie full of eye-pleasing sights. Like Rogue One, it represents a clear stylistic departure from the main-episode ancestors it nonetheless wants to recall.
For Howard’s approach, Ehrenreich makes a fine, if not exactly revelatory, young Han. His best moments are comic, imitating some Harrison Ford mannerisms (the stance, the pointing) with a cocksure goofiness; he might have been a more distinctly funny take on the character for other filmmakers. As heavily documented on the internet, that’s exactly how Solo started, with other filmmakers entirely: directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller at the helm before they were replaced, late in production, by Howard, whose finishing touches reportedly came to encompass a majority reshoot.
Some recognizable Lord-Miller touches survive in the better bits of dialogue, particularly in the scenes with legacy characters (something the filmmakers, now credited as executive producers, tried out via The Lego Movie). Han has lots of delightful exchanges with Chewbacca, but as surmised by some fans, the breakout here is Donald Glover as the slick, cape-loving gambler Lando Calrissian. Perhaps because Lando was less explored than Han in the original films, Glover manages the tricky task of both paying homage to role originator Billy Dee Williams while adding his own spin to the character. Like Ehrenreich, his version goes comic without tipping into outright spoofery. Unlike Ehrenreich, he doesn’t have to shoulde all the motivation announcements and emotional boilerplate that come with a full-on origin story.
Solo: A Star Wars Story has no shortage of boilerplate lines (“You have a talent for sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong”) and it has neither the sustained visual élan nor the biggest laughs of recent series high point The Last Jedi. Characters’ relationships change quickly, a function of both the movie’s betrayal-heavy heist mechanics and a certain inelegance of plotting. There’s nothing like Last Jedi’s thoughtful reconsideration of its own mythology, or even the charge of seeing the Rogue One crew stand up against fascism. Though the general idea is for the Star Wars Story pictures to take detours from the main saga, this is very much a modern franchise entry, with the requisite fan-service and sequel-teasing.
But there’s the catch: Both of those elements are pretty damn irresistible here, just like the cast and visuals. This is a fannish, sometimes overstuffed undertaking, but it’s so full of Star Wars-y details, like the alien head floating in a jar singing backup at a villain-packed club, that it’s hard to begrudge it a certain inconsequentiality. After all, Han Solo isn’t the smartest or even the most charming man in the galaxy. He’s a likable, rough-around-the-edges guy who survives to get the job done.