Solo is terrific fun, a blast, a movie that never feels too long. But also doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to.
WARNING – this is slightly spoilery, including Han and Chewy, so if you want to go into the cinema in blissful ignorance about this and some other plot points, leave now, with my endorsement above ringing in your ears.
Han (he only has one name at this point) is living on his wits on Corellia, a planet known throughout the galaxy as the place hope goes to die.
Ruled by the evil Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt), who trains children to become thieves in return for shelter, it’s the kind of place no one wants to go back to once they’ve escaped.
But Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is planning exactly that – having had to leave behind girlfriend Qi-ra (Emilia Clarke), he vows to return to find her.
After a stint in the army, ending up on a mud-drenched, battlefield planet, his arrogance and lack of experience result in him almost being fed to an enormous hairy creature. You could say that but for some quick-thinking, “Chewy” would have been Han’s epitaph rather than his new friend’s nickname.
It’s when the two escape that they team up with robbers-for-hire Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, very post-apocalyptic in his huge coat and straggly beard, and well, doing his usual thing); his partner Val (Thandie Newton), hard as nails but with a soft spot for a love story; and Rio Durante (Jon Favreau), a chirpy and multi-armed creature (four arms are wasted on pilots – give them to mums!)
They’re off to steal a shipment of coaxium; volatile, a funny colour, and for some reason worth a fortune, it’s the Donald Trump of explosives.
The first heist that Beckett, Val, Han, Chewy (Joonas Suotamo) and Rio attempt is astonishing. An attack on a huge train speeding along tracks atop a snowy mountain, it’s edge-of-your seat exciting as we career as fast as the train through an emotional landscape of excitement, fear and desperation. Han may be focused on making it back to Corellia and finding Qi’ra. But he’s also a kid who’s in it for the ride, and he has no idea how high the stakes are for the others.
Beckett’s employer is Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a man who lives on a space yacht with his second-in-command, Qi-ra. She’s changed in the three years since we saw her on Corellia. Beautifully groomed like a 1940s studio film star, and just as much owned by her employer, she drops hints of what she’s had to do to get to the relative safety and power of her present position.
(Clarke’s is a traditional and rather stereotypical role; not in itself a bad thing, there are reasons we want to repeatedly examine personalities and journeys like Qi’ra’s. But the actress doesn’t nail that sense of enigma around her past, whether Qi’ra has been hardened by what she’s had to do, or simply found her true calling as she worked her way out of Corellia.)
The group’s ominous meeting with Vos leads them to a last-ditch, no-holds-barred trip to Kessel, the only planet where coaxium is mined. It’s a huge risk. In that state the explosive is so volatile (this time think Kim Jong-un) they need to get to a refining facility at top speed. Han’s assured them he’s the best pilot in the galaxy, but they need a decent ship – a quest which leads them to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).
Always cool and nearly always the best dressed person in the galaxy (on occasion Qi’ra gives him a run for her money with her own top-notch cape action), Lando’s arrogance at the card table is matched only by Solo’s.
But Lando doesn’t come alone. Co-pilot droid L3-37 (a hilarious and touching Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is always with him. She’s a social justice warrior droid, who uses every mission to further her life’s work: freeing the oppressed, whether they think they’re oppressed or not.
And it’s testament to the writers, and Waller-Bridge, that I didn’t know whether to laugh or weep at an incongruous moment between L3 and Landro later in the movie that mimics so many human love stories.
I’ll admit I wasn’t convinced by Ehrenreich in his early scenes, though he had me by Goodbye. Character-wise, that mixture of bravery and bumptiousness needs to be tempered by experience and his Solo certainly ends up like that. He learns he’s a small part of a much bigger picture, for a start. (It’s unfortunate that despite Han’s journey his relationship with Qi’ra lacks chemistry.)
Harrelson is his usual reliable self, though I’m sure I’ve seen him in that outfit before. Glover is mesmerising whenever he appears, Lando’s swagger matching Solo’s, though when they first meet his has at least been earned. Bettany’s Vos is a Beta Baddie – never really evil enough or witty enough to be truly memorable.
It’s well-known that the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, left the project and were replaced by Ron Howard, but I couldn’t see any joins. And I’m not going to pretend I spent the two hours and 15 minutes’ running time scratching my chin enigmatically. No one even cares who anyone’s parents are.
The movie gallops along and yes it took me with it – I enjoyed (nearly) every minute. In a film like this you also need some laugh-out-loud moments of recognition that tie up questions asked (or not asked!) in the rest of the franchise, and we get that too.
The action is terrific, and I liked the blue-grey lighting in some scenes (though sometimes it’s a little too dark), and the dismal mud-bath of war.
In some ways Solo is an un-centered story, possibly because we don’t really get enough of Han and Lando together (who are very similar in many ways, causing sparks to fly). And L3, and some other interesting characters, aren’t in it enough.
Then again, as Lady Macbeth said (yes I’m going to quote the Bard): “stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once”; a perfectly judged vignette of a performance can be a star-like explosion of brilliance that is always remembered.
And Chewy? It turns out he does have a talent that makes him always in demand, in the most luxurious mansion or on the wildest, most barren planet: you’ll never sleep as well as in a Wookiee’s lap.
Watch the second Solo: A Star Wars Story trailer below or watch the first trailer: