In the original Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) was the wisecracking sidekick who stole the show, earning the status of beloved main character in the sequels. So it's no surprise that, for its second "Star Wars Story" (a stand-alone film within the franchise's continuity), Disney chose to explore the early life of everyone's favorite smart-ass space smuggler.
A viewer who's been in carbon freeze since 1977 might expect a grittier story than this one, in which the once-amoral Solo is mostly a good guy. As for whether Alden Ehrenreich can replicate the dangerous, hotshot charisma of the young Ford — well, don't hope for miracles. Trying to imitate the eyebrow waggles, Ehrenreich looks more like Benicio del Toro, but that doesn't stop him from giving a perfectly likable performance in this shaggy-dog space opera.
Fans of the directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie), who left the project over creative differences, may lament that their goofier, more freewheeling version will never see the screen. As finished and reshot by Ron Howard, however, Solo is still more (intentionally) comedic than Star Wars ever was under George Lucas' reign, with a jaunty irreverence that fans of "Firefly" will recognize.
Solo has the episodic quality of a TV series, too. While there's plenty of plot, much of it simply serves to facilitate the obligatory action set pieces and callbacks to other films, and the climax isn't particularly nail-biting.
We follow Han from his humble beginnings as a thieving street urchin through a stint as a grunt in the Imperial Army — where he meets his own sidekick, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) — to the crew of master criminal Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). After their first heist takes an ugly turn, Han and Beckett must complete a second, seemingly impossible one or face the wrath of a crime boss (Paul Bettany).
Everything involving the banter between Han and Chewie is a delight, as is the rivalry between Han and the dapper Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), whose ship, the Millennium Falcon, the crew needs to complete the job. The movie is at its best when it's just about the one-upping maneuvers of interstellar con men (and women, and various nonhumans).
But everything involving Han's childhood sweetheart (Emilia Clarke), who's supposed to provide the story with an emotional arc, feels patchy and unrealized. While it's nice to see a morally ambiguous female character in Star Wars, one gets the sense that this one is still on the drawing board.
The film's haircuts evoke the disco era, and some of its production design harks back to World War II (one of Lucas' cultural touchstones). Yet Solo is very much 21st-century Star Wars, full of plucky underdogs and ragtag freedom fighters (as opposed to the organized forces of the Rebellion). Even the droids get in on self-determination; Phoebe Waller-Bridge contributes a hilarious voice-over as L3-37, who preaches liberation with the breathless enthusiasm of a recently "woke" undergrad.
Star Wars movies have never before broached the idea that their sentient hunks of metal might have rights, but why not? The droids have always been among the most engaging cast members, perhaps because they aren't saddled with the weight of all that Joseph Campbell mythology.
Neither is Han Solo. But, in a blockbuster landscape filled with snarky daredevils (Deadpool, Tony Stark and Star-Lord, to name just three from the flicks this one is currently competing with), he simply isn't the draw he used to be.