Combustible Celluloid
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With: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau
Written by: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan
Directed by: Ron Howard
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Running Time: 135
Date: 05/25/2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

On the Other Han

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Although we may resist the idea, our beloved characters do not age while the actors that play them do. If we wish to continue hearing more new stories, then we must get used to new actors playing the parts. There were many Tarzans, Zorros, Supermen, and James Bonds, and now there is a new Han Solo. He is, happily, played by Alden Ehrenreich, a skilled and spirited actor who stole the show in Joel and Ethan Coen's Hail, Caesar! and was terrific — if anyone had bothered to see it — in Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply. He does what any good actor would do: he takes a few cues from Harrison Ford's Solo — there are astonishing moments that really seem like this is a younger Ford — but adds his own energy. In Solo: A Star Wars Story, the character is familiar, but with new layers.

The new movie comes under high scrutiny. Its original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the men behind the 21 Jump Street movies and The Lego Movie, were fired from the project and replaced by Ron Howard. This is certainly not the first time anyone has been fired in Hollywood, and Howard is pro enough that he was able to take up the reins without too much anguish. The result is spiffy and polished. I've heard complaints that it's slow to get going, but that it picks up later. I didn't even have that problem. I was swept away right from the start.

The good news is that Solo is such a fun character. He's one of the only ones in the Star Wars universe that doesn't seem to fret too much about the force or the Empire or anything. His "baby-I-don't-care" attitude is refreshing, and highly appealing. (We all wish we didn't care... it's so freeing!) He explodes onscreen stealing a valuable object and then stealing a speeder to escape with it. He's on Corellia, a godawful planet where the residents are more or less slaves, trying in vain to earn enough to leave. What Han has stolen is enough to get him and his girl, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke), out of there.

He makes it. She doesn't. Distraught, he joins the empire in order to train to be a pilot, hoping to get back to her. He spends years fighting needless wars before he crosses paths with a group of bandits, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau), posing as soldiers to steal things. Han figures it out and manages to escape with them. But before this happens, he is caught, thrown into a pit with a "monster," and befriends said monster, who, of course, is Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). They form an instant bond, and their scenes together are frequently touching, if not funny. (Han's repartee with his pal has always worked, given that one side is unintelligible to human ears.)

Tobias invites Han along on a difficult heist, stealing raw material that will become fuel, which could result in a very nice payday. The robbery is nothing short of amazingly cool, and it made me think of Solo: A Star Wars Story as a kind of space Western, not unlike the original Star Wars. It's a train robbery, although the robbers pilot ships — instead of horses — up close to the speeding train, and the train itself twists and spirals on mountaintop tracks, rather than moving predictably along the ground. Without saying too much more, our heroes wind up meeting with a galactic bad guy, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), running into Qi'ra again, and setting off for that "one last big score" to set everything right.

This requires a new ship, and so, enter the one and only Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who is the most inexplicably cool character in the entire series, newly reimagined with slick humor by the gifted Glover. If Solo: A Star Wars Story is at all disappointing, it's because Lando doesn't get enough to do, and because the movie doesn't seem to take him very seriously. (He frets when Qi'ra uses one of his large collection of capes to extinguish a fire.) If nothing else, to be more diverse, the movie could have used a good, strong Lando to mix things up. In this day and age of institutionalized racism, goodness knows that blockbusters could always use a few more non-white faces.

Director Howard reportedly re-shot around 70% of the film, and it feels like a tightly-crafted work. Howard was a little shaky when he embarked upon his directing career in the 1980s, but with time and practice, he became more skilled, not necessarily an artist, but more like a dependable journeyman. Some of his more recent works have been among his best, like Frost/Nixon and Rush — although Apollo 13 is arguably his best — and I would now add Solo to that list. It's fun to think that, as an actor, Howard starred in George Lucas's American Graffiti a lifetime ago, and also directed the Lucas production of Willow (1988). The star of that film, Warwick Davis, appears in a tiny role here, as does Howard's brother Clint Howard, a cult actor that fans are always happy to see.

In any case, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a swift breeze, cheerful and exhilarating, without feeling too long or exhausting. It's certainly more fun than the other departure from the main Star Wars storyline, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Like its hero, it's a bit scrappy, a bit disheveled, but it also has a good heart. It may not be a game changer in the vein of the original films, but it does the job well. Let's hope Ehrenreich and his friends return for more fun while they can, and then maybe Solo will continue to be passed along to new audiences, a long time from now in theaters far, far away.

Buena Vista's highly recommended Blu-ray release is here for the few of us that enjoyed the film in the theaters. The picture is excellent, though is surprisingly muted and flat, heavy on grays and without popping much. The sound is superb, however. The movie, with various audio mixes and subtitle options, is on its own disc, with the extras on a second disc. These include a bunch of mini-docs: a roundtable with director Howard and several cast members, a featurette on Lawrence Kasdan and his son, scene breakdowns, deleted scenes, etc. It also includes a digital copy.

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