There are few characters in cinema who embody the phrase “lovable rogue” as much as the Star Wars franchise’s Han Solo. The scoundrel with a heart of gold came to life thanks to the rugged, easy charisma of Harrison Ford, arguably eclipsing Luke Skywalker, the series’ ostensible lead protagonist. Given his colorful history as a smuggler and outlaw, Han’s life before meeting Luke in that cantina on Tattooine could make for an exciting film in the right hands. Or in the hands of Ron Howard, it could result in the boring, tedious, occasionally vibrant but mostly messy film that is Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Solo follows Han (Alden Ehrenreich) as he escapes his life as a “scumrat” on the planet Corellia, joins the Imperial army, hooks up with smuggler Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and ends up working a job for the Crimson Dawn criminal syndicate. Han runs into his old girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), who’s working as lieutenant to Crimson Dawn leader Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). He ends up making friends with the big, shaggy Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and becomes flirting frenemies with gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).
Han also steals some stuff in the meantime and tries his best to crack wise and fly starships. But because he’s played by Alden Ehrenreich, only part of that ever works. In fact, in a film with multiple issues, Ehrenreich is one of the biggest and most glaring. It might be unfair to compare Ehrenreich (or anyone at all) to Harrison Ford’s iconic performance as Han Solo, but even in the context of a younger, more idealistic version of the character, Ehrenreich’s Han seems nothing at all like the scruffy nerf-herder we know and love. Ehrenreich, in fact, is like a charismatic black hole, so devoid of charm and presence that he sucks the personality from everybody around him, making almost every performance suffer because of it.
Then again, even with the right actor in the role, the film had the odds stacked against as soon as Ron Howard sat in the the director’s chair. The original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of The Lego Movie and the Jump Street films, were fired by Disney just weeks before shooting was going to wrap and replaced by Howard, who then proceeded to re-shoot up to 80% of the film. This was allegedly because Lord and Miller were making a more comedic and improvisational film, which didn’t sit well with screenwriter Jonathan Kasdan, who hated the liberties being taken with his script.
Kasdan should have been thanking Lord and Miller, because there’s not much going on with his lines as written. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the script, but there’s nothing terribly interesting about it, either. In some ways, that makes Howard the perfect man to direct. Howard is ridiculously competent, but he’s rarely exciting. His action sequences tend to be confused when they aren’t tedious, his framing pedestrian, and his use of music cues predictable. (He isn’t helped by John Powell’s horribly boilerplate score, which only comes to life when it samples John Williams.)
Granted, that’s not to say that Lord and Miller would have necessarily made anything better. Depending on who’s doing the reporting, they were either making Guardians of a Galaxy Far, Far, Away or Ace Ventura: A Star Wars Story. They made have veered too far into making Han a clown or trivializing the fact that he’s working for Legitimately Bad People. But they likely would have made something that at least had some spark of life and novelty as opposed to Good Boy Howard’s Perfectly Mainstream Studio Blockbuster.
All that being said, however, there are moments when Howard comes through and delivers the exciting sci-fi heist film we both want and need, and the production and design work are almost always on-point. The depiction of the infamous Kessel Run is legitimately tense and gripping, with brilliant visuals like an Imperial Star Destroyer emerging from a nebula or an esacpe sequence featuring a gigantic, Lovecraftian space creature. Even while we know that Han, Chewie, Lando, and the Millennium Falcon will all get out of this OK (they need to show up in the original trilogy after all), there are moments of genuine, cliffhanger drama. It’s like Howard saved all his verve and creativity for these moments and stingingly rationed it out everywhere else.
That scattershot energy extends to the cast, too, most of whom only shine when they aren’t playing opposite Ehrenreich’s Solo. This means, unfortunately, that Emilia Clarke comes off the worst of anybody since not only are most of her scenes opposite an actor she little to no chemistry with, the character of Qi’ra is defined almost entirely by her relationship to Solo (and to a lesser extent Dryden Vos). Clarke seems far too innocent and winsome to play a woman who did questionable things to work her way up to assistant to a brutal crime lord, and it’s hard to reconcile the coasting performance she gives here with her work on Game of Thrones. Woody Harrelson comes off a little bit better, mainly because he’s been given a part tailor-made for his strengths as an actor. He doesn’t seem like he’s invested much in the character, but he still gives an appealing performance just based on the fact that he’s Woody Harrelson.
The film’s saving grace is Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian who, despite an awkward and hesitant start, proves to be just as charming, appealing, and (yes) sexy as Billy Dee Willams’ original. Glover’s easygoing vibe is a perfect match for Lando’s devil-may-care, chaotic neutral-with-a-heart attitude, and the film comes alive every time he’s on screen. Paul Bettany also makes an effective antagonist, even though his part seems hastily thrown together during the re-shoots (since that’s essentially what happened). He’s not given much to work with, but his enthusiasm shines through.
Special note also has to go to the film’s main comic relief (aside from Chewbacca), Lando’s droid L3-37, portrayed as a robots’ rights activist by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. L3’s dialogue seems a tad anachronistic and metatextual, but Waller-Bridge makes it work so very well, and she has some of the most entertaining exchanges in the whole film. Her chemistry with Glover’s Lando far outshines that of Han and Chewie here, made all the more impressive because L3 is a CGI character with a voice over part. She’s an uncompromising and independent voice in a film that seems dedicated to going down easy.
And that right there shines a light on a big part of why this movie doesn’t work like it should. When the supporting cast is more appealing than your main character, it’s hard to care about what they’re supporting. While the cast and crew’s professionalism can’t really be questioned, a film about the galaxy’s most celebrated scoundrel shouldn’t be this tedious, safe, or clean. With a lead actor who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a leading role and a director who’s loyalty has always been first and foremost to the studio, this was always going to be a bumpy ride.
Next time, turn the reins over to Lando. Let’s see what he can do.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C