Young Han Solo meets his future co-pilot Chewbacca and encounters the notorious gambler Lando Calrissian.
Here’s a blockbuster deal: a Han Solo movie that gives you two Harrison Ford icons for the price of one.
Directed by Ron Howard, Solo: A Star Wars Story (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide May 25) is a portrait of the smuggler as a young man, a solidly entertaining exploration into Han Solo’s intergalactic backstory with Alden Ehrenreich as Princess Leia’s future love interest. But take out the Star Wars trappings (the TIE fighters, Stormtroopers, etc.) and Solo is much more akin at its core to an Indiana Jones movie in the way its often-hapless rogue bounces between sticky and/or speedy situations but somehow doesn’t end up eaten by a space monster or blasted to smithereens.
Solo is more successful than Rogue One, the first spinoff from the Skywalker saga, in breaking from other Star Wars vehicles because it leans into marauders, mob syndicates and the seedier aspects of the franchise. Rather than taking another run at another Death Star, this is instead like spending two hours in the crime-infested cantina from George Lucas’ original flick that introduced Han to the universe.
Solo finds the title hero in his hardscrabble youth on the planet Corellia, a place where hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster. Han, a hotshot speeder driver, and his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), are trying to escape their life of slave labor. Yet when they finally get their shot, he makes it, she doesn’t, and three years later, Han is trying not to die on the battlefield in the Empire’s infantry, still vowing to go back and save her.
After Han falls in with a crew of robbing hoods led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), he finds a kindred spirit in soon-to-be-best friend Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), meets cocky gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and reunites with Qi’ra. She now works with wealthy gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), for whom Han and his new pals have to steal a bunch of highly combustible coaxium in order to pay off Beckett’s debt.
Ford will always be the best Han Solo — that’s just science — but Ehrenreich does the character justice, mainly because he’s a different Han than previously seen. This guy’s all wide-eyed gumption and smirking confidence — not the cynic who gets a crash course in the Force later in life. Lawrence Kasdan penned the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi back in the day, so his co-writing Solo with son Jonathan — and having a masterful handle on Han’s voice — is half the battle. (There are several callbacks to signature quotes, including a really clever riff on Han and Leia’s “I love you/I know” exchange.)
The film’s narrative focuses on showcasing tall tales in Star Wars lore — for example, how Han won the Millennium Falcon off Lando and that time Han made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs — rather than taking any big risks. Howard, who took over the movie from fired filmmakers Chris Miller and Phil Lord mid-production, is most successful in creating a bunch of great character relationships that fuel Solo’s best scenes. Glover has coolness to spare as Lando but adds an interesting bit of vulnerability when it comes to his droid sidekick, L3-37 (a fantastic Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and the closeness between Han and Chewie makes the movie.
While Solo is a Star Wars movie that gambles on not really being a “Star Wars movie,” it’s a winning chapter that only sparingly (though intriguingly) shows its hand in connecting to the bigger universe.