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Thursday, 24 May 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

(M) ★★★½

Director: Ron Howard.

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Joonas Suotamo, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jon Favreau.

"Please don't tell him I made this coat out of his brother."
There are no spoilers in this review. So carry on without fear.

Let's run through the list of near-impossible film-making challenges facing Solo shall we?

Difficult production? Check. Directors booted mid-shoot? Check. Endless reshoots? Check. Rumours your lead actor wasn't cutting the mustard? Check.

Then there's the sub-list relating to expectations. Beloved character origin story? Ooh yeah, that's a tough one. Beloved franchise? You betcha. Beloved franchise on a roll of late? Absolutely (and screw anyone who thought The Last Jedi sucked).

Solo: A Star Wars Story had everything stacked against it. So it's a huge relief and a minor miracle that it doesn't suck. It's not brilliant and has its issues, but it's great fun and does a harmlessly good job of telling a new tale in an old and increasingly crowded Star Wars universe.

For those who haven't figured it out yet, or who have stumbled across this review by accident, this is the story of a young Han Solo (Ehrenreich) - a man raised on the gritty streets of Corellia, destined for greatness, struggling to make a credit or two, and dreaming of running away from it all with his girlfriend Qi'ra (Clarke).

There can't be many acting gigs tougher than following in the footsteps of one of Hollywood's biggest stars while wearing the boots of one of cinema's most iconic characters, but Ehrenreich acquits himself well. He's not slavish to what has come before, nor is he trying to impersonate Harrison Ford. His is a fresh take that somehow, almost remarkably, captures the essence of a young Solo. Ehrenreich's scruffy wannabe-pilot is naive and cocksure. He's yet to have the rough edges bevelled off his charm or to have world-weary cynicism knock the sparkle out of his eyes. It's an excellent performance, and one that will have you looking past the fact he doesn't resemble or sound much like a young Ford. So much of this film lives and dies on Ehrenreich, but you can mark that one on your scorecard as a win.

The cast is filled with winners. Harrelson rarely disappoints these days, and he's casual and cool as Tobias Beckett, the master scoundrel to the apprentice Solo. Glover does a similar job to Ehrenreich, capturing the essence of Lando Calrissian without imitating Billy Dee Williams, while Bettany's Big Bad Dryden Vos is intriguing but underused. Newton's Val, Favreau's Rio, and Waller-Bridge's droid L3-37 are also solid but fleeting.

Continuing the run of strong female characters that dates back to Princess Leia blasting her way into a garbage chute is Qi'ra. She's probably the most well-rounded player in the whole film, and in many ways the most interesting, but her true depths and desires are only hinted at - one of the few examples of subtlety in the script. Plenty is left aside for the (hopefully) inevitable sequel, which will make her character a frustrating one if that doesn't eventuate.

Where things fall down is in the script. Early on it clunks harder than a faulty hyperdrive, and the film only hits its stride once Solo gets off Corellia. From there on its a fun ride, although it's not big on under-stated ideas, nor does it manage anything in the way of surprises. It's a sturdy yet generic heist film, notable only for being set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (and we had a better heist in Rogue One to be totally honest).

Having said that, Howard must come in for some back-handed praise. Taking command of a project long after it's already taken off can't be easy, but he has done a great job when you take that into account. He was always the perfect director for the half-finished job, not because he's an old pal of George Lucas (and reportedly turned down directing The Phantom Menace) but because he's solid yet style-less. He makes good films and is a strong storyteller, but he never overwhelms his films with directorial tics or stylistic trademarks. Historically speaking, Howard simply and effectively tells a tale and that's it, and that's what he does here. If ever there was a director to pick up the pieces and not stamp his imprint all over it, Ron Howard is it.

It does mean the film is somewhat toneless and lacking a distinctive flavour, but the real flaws of Solo are not Howard's. It's in the first act's stilted struggle to find its groove, and the movie's wandering inability to locate a suitable climax. There's also an issue in unearthing the heart of the film - the big emotional beats never hit their mark and its thematically lacking. A lot of that comes down to the script, or perhaps the switch from ousted directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who were apparently ditched for taking a too-comedic tack).

But Solo is fun, without being as funny as it could or might have been. And it's also about the bigger Star Wars universe, which means it's about perspective. If Solo was the first Star Wars film to come out after Revenge Of The Sith, it would seem like Citizen Kane. But coming after episodes VII and VIII and Rogue One, it feels lesser. These are the benchmarks new Star Wars films are measured against. Compared to those Star Wars releases of the past two years, this is a far less serious venture and perhaps a generally lesser venture. It's an enjoyable side-quest, a somewhat refreshing palate cleanser between courses. It doesn't achieve greatness, but it's certainly not the disappointment many expected it to be.

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