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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story Movie Review

Solo: A Star Wars Story Movie Review
Trying "Solo"

There's no familiar crawl of text following the sparkling Lucasfilm logo and it's missing the heraldic crash that swings into the now-iconic orchestral theme, but you can be sure that the new film "Solo" rests squarely in the "Star Wars" universe - and not just because the rest of the film's title - "A Star Wars Story" - tells you that. Nope; for better (spectacular action sequences, fantastically imagined creatures, goofy optimism, and a performance that beautifully channels work from the original canon) or for worse (some retreading of already too-familiar franchise ground, a tendency to get talky about plot points, and at least one would-be perilous scene that's ripped right out of the script for "Return of the Jedi"), this is clearly a "Star Wars" film.

"Solo" is the much buzzed about origin story of Han Solo, here played by relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich ("Rules Don't Apply"). We meet him as a restless teen who's itching to escape the wretched backwater planet that he and girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones) are from. They hatch a plan but get separated; he goes forward and swears to come back for her when he can.

Various adventures lead the young Han to the Imperial Fleet, where he enlists in pilot training, and eventually onto a battlefield, where he meets the sketchy Beckett (Woody Harrelson, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"), a smuggler who's definitely missing the proverbial heart of gold. As you'd expect, "Solo" also lays out how Han first encounters his lifelong buddy Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi") and suave charmer Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, Atlanta). If you're a fan of the franchise you already know the framework - the card game, the Millennium Falcon, the Kessel Run - and it's fun to see it explored in greater detail.

The "Solo" cast is strong, with Mr. Harrelson exhibiting a dusty hipslung charisma and settling in like he owns the place, and Ms. Clarke stepping up with some verve to prove that Qi'ra is a woman of action in fine "Star Wars" tradition. Paul Bettany ("Avengers: Infinity War") is on hand as crime boss Dryden Vos, and he applies an arch weariness that happily breaks the "Snidely Whiplash" mold of the typical "Star Wars" second-string baddie (Domhnall Gleeson we're looking at you). And there's some stellar voicework here from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who's known primarily for British television series' Crashing and Fleabag. Ms. Waller-Bridge is a revelation as the voice of feisty L3-37, Lando's first mate who takes droid self-awareness to a whole new level.

But, again for better or worse, there are two performances that stand out among the cast. The first is Mr. Glover, whose early iteration of Billy Dee Williams's Lando Calrissian is so spot-on that he must have studied with whoever prepped Ewan McGregor for his eerily apt take on Alec Guiness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in "A Phantom Menace." Lando's smooth voice, suave mannerisms, sartorial flair - Mr. Glover nails it all. Putting the two actors side by side out of costume you certainly wouldn't mistake them for one another, but Mr. Glover works hard to capture Mr. Williams's essence, and the result is one of the real pleasures of "Solo."

This successful take on the young Lando unfortunately points to some failings where the lead role is concerned. Mr. Ehrenreich plays Han Solo as though he has no awareness that he's following in the footsteps of another actor; he seems to have made little attempt to either echo Harrison Ford or to defiantly put his own stamp on the character, and this yields a sort of emptiness at the center of the film. At times by an accident of genetics Mr. Ehrenreich shows flashes of the original trilogy Han's cocky grin, but more often than not his work is like watching a cosplayer who's suited up and acting out favorite scenes without a real sense of connection to the arc of the story.

And whether it's because of this lack on the part of the lead, or the resolutely straight-ahead storytelling approach of the screenwriters, "Solo" doesn't hit all of its marks as an origin story. One still risks the derision of fans by favorably citing "The Phantom Menace," but what that entry did well was provide a deeper understanding of Obi-Wan's character by exploring his early relationship with Jedi mentor Qui-Gon. "Solo" doesn't build any real connections between the characters, preferring to take an "and then...and then..." narrative approach that keeps the action moving and sketches in history but doesn't provide much insight beyond that.

Still, this is a "Star Wars" story and it's all in good fun. The ships are grandiose and complex (the "Star Wars" films always seem particularly good at conveying mindboggling mass onscreen), the creatures are creative, camaraderie - notwithstanding the occasional saw-it-coming-from-a-mile-away double-cross - is the watchword of the day, and in the end we pretty much know who our heroes are. In the case of "Solo" our hero may not quite be up to shouldering all of the action himself, but luckily he's got a strong crew around to help him out - and in the end, in the "Star Wars" universe, isn't that what really counts?

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