****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 2.75 out of 5 stars Popcorn Curve* Rating: 3.5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT. An enjoyable and well paced movie. Not Oscar material, but a good old fashioned bit of big budget entertainment.
Solo: A Star Wars Story, written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard*, is the origin story of that lovable and charming rogue, Han Solo, from the original Star Wars films. The movie stars Alden Ehrenreich as Solo with supporting turns from Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson and Donald Glover.
As I have stated many times before, I am more a Planet of the Apes devotee than a Star Wars guy, and so I would consider myself to be, at best, a marginal Star Wars fan. I do thoroughly enjoy the underlying mythology of the franchise but have often found the cinematic execution of that mythology to be a bit lacking at times. My moderation when it comes to all things Star Wars can be both a blessing and a curse, as it means I never get too excited over a new Star Wars movie, but I also never get too downtrodden if it fails to be transcendent.
With all of that said, before I saw Solo my starting point was that I had very, very low expectations. Those low expectations were born out of the swamp of bad press the film has been receiving for well over a year now. The whispers of problems turned into a scream last June when Dear Leader Mickey Mouse fired the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, six months into shooting.
The Disney politburo then followed up this stunning move by bringing in the ultimate vanilla studio hack Ron Howard to do reshoots and finish production. Hollywood was abuzz over the beheading of Lord and Miller by Disney hatchet woman, Obergruppenfuhrer Kathleen Kennedy, and news of very costly re-shoots bloating the film's budget only fueled the spreading wildfire of bad buzz that can cripple a big budget movie.
That bad buzz came to fruition when on opening night, a good friend of mine, let's call him Doug, who is a stalwart Star Wars nerd, went to a 10 pm showing (in costume, of course) with his wife here in Los Angeles, and they were the only ones in the theater. Another friend of mine went to opening night in Minneapolis and suffered the same fate sans costume.
Empty theaters on opening night for a Star Wars movie was a strong indicator that Darth Mickey had a big bust on his hands with Solo. The subsequent box office numbers were underwhelming, at least when compared to other Star Wars movies, and so the media narrative was now set in stone…Solo was a bomb. Headlines abounded on the internet questioning if Solo was the beginning of the end for the Star Wars franchise, some articles pondered if audiences stayed away because the film wasn't diverse enough (eye roll!).
It was in the midst of this negativity storm that out of a sense of duty to my vocation as a film critic, I snuck off to see Solo. I was so sure that Solo would be awful that I was trying to come up with a clever little spin on the old joke about the bad singer who is implored to "sing a solo…so-low we can't hear you".
But then I ran into a problem…I went and saw Solo and lo and behold I ended up really enjoying it. Midway through the film I actually thought to myself, "you know what...this is an entertaining romp". Why I was using the term "romp" is a mystery to me as is makes me sound like some hackneyed reviewer like Rex Reed or something, but the truth is…Solo really is a fun romp!
As someone who loathes Ron Howard films, it is difficult for me to give him credit for Solo's success, so I will simply say it is to the credit of all three directors on the film, Lord, Miller and Howard, that the pacing of the movie is so well-done. There is virtually no wasted time or energy in Solo, and it never loses steam and moves at a very compelling clip.
Another reason why the film is so darn entertaining is the lead actor Alden Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is in a tough spot, recreating an iconic role, Han Solo, created by Harrison Ford, but having to devolve the character into an earlier iteration of itself. Ehrenreich tactically increases the swagger and the snark to near adolescent levels at times which ends up being quite effective. To his credit, Ehrenreich possesses the sheer charisma and charm to carry the entire Solo enterprise, which is a talent you simply cannot teach a young actor, they either have it or they don't.
Being a movie star is a tough gig, as you must have the energy, stamina, force of will, ambition and dynamic magnetism to carry the weight of a major motion picture, all while being continuously beautiful and charming. When I first noticed Ehrenreich it was in the Warren Beatty directed film Rules Don't Apply. The film is abysmal and I only watched maybe a half hour of it on cable, but in that brief time Ehrenreich made me sit up in my seat and say "who is that?" For whatever reason he just jumped off the screen, and no doubt casting people had the same reaction as he made quite a leap going from Rules Don't Apply to the iconic title character in Solo. (as a side note the actress playing opposite Ehrenreich in Rules Don't Apply also jumped off the screen at me, she was beautiful and talented, her name is Lily Collins, and after looking into her I discovered she is famed pop star Phill Collin's daughter...keep and eye out for her)
Ehrenreich's skill is impressive in Solo as he never falls into the trap of caricature when playing Han Solo. His Solo is a real life human being, trying to make his way in the world and find out who he really is, or at least what identity he will adopt. This may be blasphemy to Star Wars fans, but I am telling you, Ehrenreich's Han Solo is a considerably more complex and better acting job that Harrison Ford's version ever was.
As for the rest of the cast, for the most part they all do solid and steady work. Emilia Clarke is her usual luminous self as Qi-ra. Clarke is both alluring and approachable and she imbues Qi-ra with an unspoken mysterious wound that makes the character very compelling.
Woody Harrelson continues his streak of doing quality work in big budget franchise films by playing Tobias Beckett in Solo, a sort of criminal mentor to the young Han Solo. Harrelson has really evolved into a superb actor, and while he doesn't have a hell of a lot to work with in Solo, he makes the very most of what he does have.
Donald Glover plays the young Lando Calrissian, and while he often feels like he is simply doing a spot-on Billy Dee Williams impersonation, he does it with enough panache and style to make it enjoyable.
The one dour note on the acting is Paul Bettany as Dryden Vos. Vos is a big time crime lord and Bettany simply lacks the gravitas and menace to be able to pull off the character with any believability. I later learned that Michael K. Williams was originally cast in the role and shot the majority of it but when Howard was brought aboard to direct Williams was replaced by Bettany because his schedule conflicted with re-shoots. This is a shame as Williams is a far superior actor to Bettany, and in this role I can only imagine how fantastic he would've been.
Besides Solo himself, the two best characters in the film are the droid L3 and Chewbacca. Both of these characters have very intriguing and poignant story lines that are rich with political and cultural meaning…so much so that I would love to see a stand alone film about either character or both. I doubt that will ever happen, but it SHOULD happen.
Solo is still getting a lot of bad press and the box office is only going to continue to disappoint its voracious Disney overlords, but in my opinion it was an entertaining movie. It is more akin to Chinese food than Filet Mignon, as it ultimately doesn't stay with you long after you see it, but that doesn't mean it is an abject failure. Solo entertained me, and to me that makes it a success.
If you want to lose yourself for two hours of big budget Star Wars fun then Solo is the film for you..and if you have no one to go see it with you, then do what I did and see it solo!! (See what I did there? That is a play on words…the film is titled Solo and I said to see it solo…just one more bit of evidence proving how clever I am!!). If you want a transcendent cinematic experience that will give deeper meaning and purpose to your life…better to sit this one out.
*The Popcorn Curve judges a film based on its entertainment merits as a franchise/blockbuster movie, as opposed to my regular rating system which judges a film solely on its cinematic and artistic merits.