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Dustin Putman

Solo: A Star Wars Story  (2018)
3 Stars
Directed by Ron Howard.
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany, Joonas Suotamo, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt, Clint Howard, Warwick Davis, Ian Kenny, John Tui, Anthony Daniels.
2018 – 135 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, May 17, 2018.
Alden Ehrenreich may not look much like a young Harrison Ford, but he does one better: he captures the essence of Ford's iconic "Star Wars" character Han Solo. The rugged, playful energy; the half smirk and mischievous glint in his eyes; the rebellious live-wire spirit softened only by the viewer's knowledge that his nature is innately good—it's all here and then some, exhibited fully and naturally by an actor oozing with charisma. Ehrenreich displays the underlying gravitas within Han's destiny, but there is also a lightness to him working in tandem with a film that trades in the bleak, war-torn seriousness of 2016's "Rogue One" for a welcome sense of cucumber-cool fun. "Solo: A Star Wars Story" is a blast.

Before Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) became a pilot, before he met Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, and before he joined the Rebel Alliance in an effort to restore the Republic from the nefarious Galactic Empire, he was a lowly resident on the planet of Corellia. Living in lawless times, Han and girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) make a brave attempt to escape on an outbound ship, hoping to trade a vial of a rare and highly valuable mineral known as coaxium in exchange for their freedom. During their struggle, the two are separated and Han has no choice but to leave Qi'ra behind. Three years later, he is kicked out of the Imperial Academy and joins forces with a band of smugglers led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and wife Val (Thandie Newton). Their latest score is a trainload of coaxium being transported across an exotic, snow-capped mountain range. If they are successful, Han hopes to earn enough money to pilot a ship back to Corellia and rescue Qi'ra. As is so often the case, things do not work out as smoothly as anticipated.

Don't let its rocky production history fool you; "Solo: A Star Wars Story" offers slick thrills and a terrifically composed narrative, never for a second striking as the work of conflicting creative visions. Ron Howard (2016's "Inferno"), who took over for original directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord in the midst of principal photography, hasn't made a picture this buoyantly consistent in years, while father-and-son co-writers Jonathan Kasdan (2007's "In the Land of Women") & Lawrence Kasdan (2015's "Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens") have crafted a one-part crime caper, one-part space western freshly existing within the world of "Star Wars." How did Han meet unlikely friend and trusty future co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo)? How did his path cross with that of suave smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover)? What were the events which led to him taking over ownership of the Millennium Falcon? All of the above queries are answered and best left for audiences to discover on their own. So, for that matter, are questions one didn't know he or she had, like the clever genesis of Han's last name.

Though the film includes life-or-death battles of the intergalactic variety—and the stakes are raised ever higher with the entrance of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a dangerous figure who sails around on his airborne yacht while threatening lives—this perilousness is balanced by a spry, dynamic mood and tale-spinning tempo. Nearly every frame is a feast of imaginative detail as Han's journey crosses the galaxy. Action sequences include some of the most electrifying of the "Star Wars" franchise, including an opening chase through Corellia on hovermobile speeders, a late race against time as the Millennium Falcon's inhabitants face a gravity well known as The Mouth, and—best of all—that elaborate attempted heist of a high-tech locomotive carrying coaxium, its swerving side-turns among the mountain peaks taking on the feel of a monorail rollercoaster. This latter set-piece is such a gripping tour de force its only downfall is coming so early in the picture; in terms of pure adrenaline-fueled excitement, what follows can never quite match it.

The pressure involved in taking on a beloved character like Han Solo must have been off the charts, but one would never know it from Alden Ehrenreich's (2016's "Hail, Caesar!") magnetic, self-assured performance. Han may protest that he's not the good guy everyone presumes, but of course he is, and Ehrenreich embodies the same uncanny soul with which Harrison Ford originated the character in 1977. The actor also shares palpable chemistry with Emilia Clarke (2015's "Terminator Genisys"), bringing layers of regret, affection and torn devotion to Qi'ra, the woman Han was torn from three years earlier no longer the innocent she once was. Woody Harrelson (2017's "War for the Planet of the Apes") is reliable as ever as Tobias Beckett, a smuggler who takes Han under his wing while warning him once he's in it's nearly impossible to get out. Supporting turns are uniformly sharp, including Donald Glover's (2017's "Spider-Man: Homecoming") Lando Calrissian, a smooth operator with a con-man's disposition; Phoebe Waller-Bridge's (2011's "The Iron Lady") L3-37, Lando's tough-talking, soft-inside android; and Paul Bettany's (2018's "Avengers: Infinity War") unsparing sociopathic villain Dryden Vos.

"Solo: A Star Wars Story" never feels as if it is trying too hard or pandering to the youngest potential audience members, as was occasionally the case with 2017's Porg-littered "Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi." Instead, this appealing science-fiction heist adventure is an example of sophisticated storytelling without excess. Because there is no way to anticipate exactly where the plot is going (given the viewer has not been spoiled ahead of time), there is the sense multiple times during the third act that the film is getting ready to end, only for it to press on as further kinks are revealed in Han's mission. Where all culminates, however, is exactly where it should, the final scenes lending further weight to Han's backstory while suggesting there may be more of his past to unspool in a potential Solo-centric sequel. Tech credits are, of course, top of the line. Special effects are seamless. Bradford Young's (2016's "Arrival") atmospheric lensing carries a preference for dramatic, seemingly Argento-inspired lighting. John Powell's (2016's "Jason Bourne") music score is lush, rousing, and full of depth, his original compositions perfectly intermingling with samples from John Williams' memorable themes. For lack of a better analogy, "Solo: A Star Wars Story" is the "Guardians of the Galaxy" of the "Star Wars" universe, a thoroughly satisfying, unusually fresh entry with a restless, free-wheeling aura and plenty of heart.
© 2018 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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