When comedy filmmakers extraordinaire Phil Lord & Christopher Miller were infamously fired from making Solo: A Star Wars Story, nobody was at fault for fearing the worst. When Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy hired Hollywood royalty Ron Howard to pick up the slack and bring the film together, I certainly didn’t breathe a sigh of relief. The guy who made Cinderella Man (2005) and A Beautiful Mind (2001) gets behind a movie that really has an uphill battle to climb, recounting the "Muppet Babies"-esque early days of some beloved characters from the original Star Wars trilogy now played by different actors than those who made them iconic? I had, to borrow a phrase, a bad feeling about that.
What a delight it was to move past the behind the scenes and pre-release ballyhoo and actually see the damn film. In so doing I found out that not just the old pro Ron Howard showed up, but the brash young filmmaker and actor behind American Graffiti (1973-an early George Lucas effort, naturally), Grand Theft Auto (1977) and Night Shift (1982), among others, also was present. Unlike the previous (and similarly troubled) Star Wars Story, Rogue One (2016), Solo never feels totally awkward or structurally disjointed. It’s the straightforward tale of a devil-may-care scoundrel with a heart of gold growing up on hardscrabble streets, hooking up with some disreputable yet charming types and pulling off wild heist after heist. In other words, it’s a crime film, a film noir with all the daring getaways and mysterious characters and duplicitousness that comes with it. The cast are a blast together, with Han Solo as the clear lead, but never sticking out far enough so as to make the whole ensemble feel like one. Alden Ehrenreich is excellent as the titular character, simply because he manages to find the core heart and charm of Han without ever attempting an awkward or distracting Harrison Ford impression. Donald Glover does do a mighty well observed Billy Dee Williams, yet one that’s subtle enough that it seems like a character choice rather than a continuity mandated element (much like Ewan McGregor’s impeccable Alec Guinness in the prequel trilogy). Emilia Clarke brings a great deal of warmth to what could be a standard “first sweetheart” role, and Phoebe-Waller Bridge is an absolute standout as Lando’s partner L3 (seriously, is there a Star Wars film in the last fifteen years where the standout character *isn’t* a droid?).
The action setpieces are beautiful and exciting, two areas that many major studio blockbusters (especially ones bankrolled by Disney) excel at. There’s an early train heist scene that seems to have been shot at magic hour over snowy mountains that may have you wondering which to look at, the scenery or the action in front of it. If there’s one weird kink about the film, it’s the great amount of fan service put in. Lines of dialogue, shot compositions, costume pieces, and even entire themes and situations harken back to not just the classic Star Wars films but the Indiana Jones series as well. What helps these elements go down smoother is the fact that it all feels correct somehow, doing for this film what the deliberate rhymes (and/or discordant notes) do in the main trilogies. Nor does the movie ever stop to congratulate itself or pander to the audience—Howard keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and as such the movie is more akin to a ride than a pointless slog through frankly unsurprising backstory.
What keeps Solo fresh—and I’d argue, vital—is the way it presents a new genre in the series in the same way that Rogue was a ground-level war drama and the main trilogies are a mythological saga of family issues & good vs. evil. It’s what, on paper, these “Story” films are supposed to be, anthology-like entries to flesh out the fictional universe not just in the letter, but the spirit and genre as well. Solo is far from a “necessary” entry in the Star Wars saga, but if all the “unnecessary” ones are as entertaining and fun as this, myself and other fans frankly have nothing to worry about.