Of all the potential spinoffs in the Star Wars universe, one of the few that the fans were not clamouring for was a Harrison Ford-free origin story for the enigmatic smuggler with a heart of gold, Han Solo. Combine that with a torturous development featuring much-publicised creative differences between Lucasfilm and the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, it’s a miracle that Solo not only made its initial release date, but also that it made it in relatively good condition. Ron Howard had a huge job on his hands redoing pretty much an entire film, but he proves his mettle as a very steady pair of hands with this flawed and scrappy, but very fun, entry into the Star Wars canon.
Every base that one would expect to be covered in a Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) origin story is here. His first meeting with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), the origins of his frenemy relationship with Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and of course the 12 parsec Kessel Run are all present and accounted for. What leads Han on all these adventures is a failed train heist with a crew led by the scoundrel Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), which leaves Han and his friends in debt to vicious gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).
Ehrenreich makes for a good Han, never attempting a Harrison Ford impression, and instead getting across a cynical but soft-hearted scammer with the potential to become both an infamous rogue and a galaxy saving hero. There’s no hint of Ehrenreich being out of his depth, despite the reports from the set of a troubled performance, and he plays off well with every member of the cast. Glover is inevitably the standout as Lando, endlessly flirtatious with any gender, species, or droid and an absolute charisma machine, but doesn’t own the film to the point where it feels he should be the lead.
Harrelson is compelling in a mentor role with some depth, and Bettany does a lot with a little as the villain of the piece. Surrounded by all this incredible talent, supplemented by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge as revolutionary robot L3, Emilia Clarke gets a little overshadowed as love interest/rather predictable femme fatale Qi’Ra. Packing in a lot of fan service and exposition, the script (by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan Kasdan) is both overstuffed and overlong, with some questionable dialogue, but also full of fun jokes and entertaining set-pieces.
Coated in a film of smog and grime, the action sequences feel more grounded here than in any main saga Star Wars film, though Solo can’t match the gritty desperation of Rogue One. A mass breakout is enjoyably cathartic and chaotic, and the Kessel Run itself is executed with wit and verve, taking a legendary piece of the canon and making it thrillingly tangible. But the very best scenes are when Solo lets itself slow down, especially in its games of Sabacc (essentially Space Poker) when Han and Lando go head to head in battles of wits and sleights of hand.
There aren’t many opportunities for Solo to do anything unexpected, so the story does feel rather weightless, but for the most part it’s fun and well-acted enough to overcome this problem. The Han-Chewie bromance is still incredibly charming, Suotamo perfectly capturing the Wookie’s spirit, and I could easily watch a whole film of Glover’s Lando, especially as he’s writing an adventure novel about himself. It’s not up to the standard of the previous three entries into the franchise, and could stand be a decent sight shorter, but Solo is still far better and more coherent than it really had a right to be.