“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” have been the words on many fans’ lips since Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were given their Imperial Marching orders deep into the shoot of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Who better, after all, than the guys behind The Lego Movie and the two Jump Street films to capture the smart-mouthed swagger of a young Han many years before he piloted his trusty Millennium Falcon into A New Hope? Certainly not his replacement Ron ‘Safe Hands’ Howard: does anyone really want the guy behind A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code, and Cinderella Man (Nerf) herding our cocksure cowboy into the cockpit ready for his stellar journey into popular culture? With Howard piloting, Solo, you’d expect, will always shoot second and is unlikely to complete the Kessler Run in under 12 yawns.
Think again. For while we’ll always wonder just what Lord and Miller might have done with this second spin-off story (after Rogue One, which also had more than its fair share of production woes), Solo: A Star Wars Story reminds us that Howard also directed Apollo 13, EdTV, and Parenthood, to say nothing of the adrenalin-fuelled Formula One biopic Rush – movies packed with fun or suspense or skin-prickling energy, sometimes all three.
Set, as the opening crawl informs us, in a lawless time when hyperfuel coaxium is at a premium, we meet Han (Alden Ehrenreich) on the planet Corellia, where Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) forces rescued kids into her evil employ. Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) double-cross her and make a run for it – or rather a lightspeeder chase of it, with Han demonstrating just why he’ll one day make a star pilot. Separated at the last second, Han flees the planet while Qi’ra is caught and left behind.
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Cut to three years later and Han is now fighting for the Empire in the Imperial Army, but always looking for a way out, a means to raise some cash to buy a ship and crash land back on Corellia to rescue Qi’ra. He falls in with Captain Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton), identifying them as fellow mercenaries and – after a meet-far-from-cute with a certain hairball named Chewbacca – sets of to hijack a trainload of coaxium.
To say a great deal more of the twisting, turning, double-dealing plot would be to rob viewers of some lovely surprises, but safe to say a second daring coaxium heist is required, this time with suave gangster Dryden (Paul Bettany) dangling the threat of death over our ragtag heroes’ heads should they fail.
Hitting lightspeed from its opening sequence and rarely letting up, Solo doesn’t have the emotional heft or lingering impact of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi or, indeed, Rogue One, but it’s the most fun entry since A New Hope. All the scenes you’d want and expect are here – Han happening upon his odd surname; Han winning the Millennium Falcon off Lando Calrissian (MVP Donald Glover) in a game of Sabacc; that death-defying Kessel Run – while there are crowd-pleasing Easter eggs galore and a real sense that this snappy, intimate tale takes place in a much larger universe freighted with deep history and glorious futures as yet unwritten. It is a caper, a western, a heist movie, and is its own thing while being very much a Star Wars film – just as the spin-off stories should be. It’s also packed to the gills (and various other breathing apparatus) with delightful creatures and droids, including Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s feminist resistance ‘bot L3-37, who has all the bells and whistles – or should that be bleeps and whistles – of Lord/Miller’s signature irreverence.
And Ehrenreich? He pretty much nails it, cleaving close enough to Harrison Ford’s voice and mannerisms, swagger and heart, that you actually begin to think he looks like a young Ford the more the movie goes on. Don’t expect this movie to fly solo – a flyboy franchise is a guarantee.