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Solo isn’t top-shelf Star Wars, but it is an enjoyable ride.

Be a Part of Something – Join the Empire

The bromance begins
The bromance begins

The good news is Han Solo’s origin story is a fun romp through the Star Wars universe. It’s a story without many of the familiar trappings found in every other big screen Star Wars adventure to date. In this one, there is no mention of the Force or the Jedi, Darth Vader or Death Stars. This adventure focuses on the scoundrels, nerfherders and space pirates who live in that galaxy far, far away.

It’s a lawless time in the galaxy, as the opening titles note. The Empire is rising and actively recruiting. One such recruit is Han (Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures), a desperate young man living on the mean streets of Corellia, a shipbuilding planet with an economy driven by war profiteering and underworld slave labor. Han doesn’t have a family, a tribe, a people. He is solo, so the initially disappointing and overly simple title takes on more meaning once it’s given a little more context.

As the movie opens, Han is in the thick of a plan to escape Corellia with his love interest, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, HBO’s Game of Thrones). He’s brash, cocky, reckless. He’s Han Solo, after all. And, true to form, things go sideways, splitting Han and Qi’ra onto separate paths.

Picking up three years later, Han is on a slow, arduous mission to return to Corellia with an eye on rescuing Qi’ra. Han’s life is a winding road full of detours. He enlists in the Empire, but he gets kicked out of the Imperial Academy for having a mind of his own. Danger is never a stranger, though, and Han winds up in the trenches of a nasty battle. It’s one of the movie’s best parts: a war scene with scout walkers and stormtroopers locked in gritty, dark combat more akin to World War I than the manic CGI visual orgy of Attack of the Clones. If Episodes II and III had handled the battle scenes like this, they would’ve been stronger movies.

But that’s just one sequence, during which Han meets Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, The Hunger Games), a smuggler who introduces Han to a whole new way of life.

They Go Way Back

It’s not giving anything away to say this standalone adventure gets into the details of incidents and adventures referenced in the Skywalker family saga. In Solo, Han meets and befriends Chewbacca and he meets and bedevils Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, also known as Grammy-winning Childish Gambino). The Millennium Falcon is nice and new and the standing record of 20 parsecs is about to be blown out of the universe as Han tackles the legendary Kessel run.

There’s plenty of cleverness afoot here. And there are oodles of references to people, places and things. Name dropping includes Bossk, Scarif and mynocks. Visually, it’s cool to see lucky dice, Star Destroyers under construction and droids that would later appear on the Death Star. There’s also Warwick Davis, cast in a role that’s not an Ewok.

Seemingly taking a cue from Marvel, the Star Wars movies are starting to dig deep into the massive history of “after-market” creations, with Solo giving nods to obscure characters in various animated endeavors and other franchise properties.

All of that makes for good, clean Star Wars fun. After the darkness of Rogue One and The Last Jedi (not to mention the overwhelming gloom emanating from other franchises in bloated movies like Justice League and its Marvel twin, Avengers: Infinity War), this one allows fans to breathe a little easier.

Much like how the best parts of the Star Wars saga revolve around the characters and the relationships, all set against the fantastical backdrop of galactic warfare, Solo finds its best moments while building out the relationships, particularly between Han and Chewie; Han and Lando; and Han and Qi’ra. It’s an informed screenplay, one written by a guy who knows a thing or two about Star Wars, Lawrence Kasdan (co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), and his son, Jonathan.

Capes — Lots of Capes

As Han finds his way into a lifestyle of non-committal adventure, there are moments of foreshadowing as he shuns any notion of joining the nascent Rebellion. And Tobias clues Han in about a large gangster on Tatooine who works on some big deals. As the characters connive and collaborate in an effort to find some degree of favor or forgiveness from a lean and mean gangster, Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany, The Da Vinci Code), a number of conflicting forces begin to coalesce and the story takes a surprisingly dark (and oh so juicy) turn at the end.

The ending works so well, it’s unfortunate the bulk of the movie doesn’t pack a similar punch — or offer more giddy surprises. To that end, then, Solo is also a bit of a disappointment. It could’ve been more, much more.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is John Powell’s score, which recycles a number of themes from the John Williams canon. Rather than crafting a wholly fresh score (granted, Powell collaborated with Williams on a new theme for Han, but it doesn’t stand out), Powell, for example, mines music from the asteroid field scene in Empire in a scene of similar astro acrobatics. Instead of being a pure tribute, it comes across as rather patronizing. While that music can’t help but evoke a certain emotional response among fans, it still hits the wrong notes of manipulation.

Nonetheless, with messages of fighting for freedom, finding a sense of belonging and the notion everybody needs somebody, there’s a nice, relevant and timely subtext floating under the surface.

This Is Corellia

This is one notoriously troubled production, so the final cut turning out to be so agreeable is certainly a credit to director Ron Howard (Oscar winner for A Beautiful Mind). How troubled was it? Well, the end credits include an unusual “thank you” to the cast and crew’s family members for their patience and generosity.

“Stick with the plan and don’t improvise” is a demand made of Han at one point. Clearly, that wasn’t happening with the previous tag-team directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who were fired — reportedly — with 80% of the movie already in the can. If true, that’s an astonishing time to make a change at the helm. Allegedly, they were too improvisational, while Kasdan simply wanted to see his screenplay get filmed. As it stands, they’re given credit as executive producers and one can only wonder how much — if any — of their footage will make it onto a home video release as deleted scenes or alternate cuts.

Among the negative headlines were reports of Ehrenreich — considered the next “it guy” upon the release of Hail, Caesar! — needing acting coaching since he wasn’t capturing the young Han Solo, a character made legendary by Harrison Ford in four episodes of the Skywalker saga. The kid turns out to be okay; by the movie’s end, he suitably fills the role. Similarly, Glover doesn’t quite channel the character and mannerisms originated by Billy Dee Williams in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but chalk it up to age. These guys are young again, with plenty of character-building adventures ahead of them.