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Taking flight with 'Solo'

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Full disclosure: I love “Star Wars.” The original trilogy is near and dear to my heart – one of my earliest memories is seeing “Empire” at the drive-in when I was three. And while the prequels left a lot to be desired, Disney’s reinvigoration of the franchise in recent years has been welcome.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is the fourth film in this new wave and somehow manages to be both the biggest departure and the most conventional of the bunch. Turmoil seemed abundant behind the scenes – original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were replaced by Ron Howard; rumblings about reshoots and acting coaches and whatnot were plentiful – so one wondered what the final product was going to be.

It’s … fine. Pretty good, actually. Not as good as the other newer offerings, but with plenty to recommend it. There are moments where it feels stitched together and a bit inconsistent, but otherwise, the directorial drama doesn’t show up much on screen. The performances range from meh to solid to excellent. The story is a bit slight and there are certain narrative mysteries that might have been better left unsolved (along with some tonal inconsistency and a few not-insignificant timeline questions), but all in all, it’s a fun space opera/heist movie with a charming cast and some strong set pieces.

Han (Alden Ehrenreich, “The Yellow Birds”) is living in squalor on the planet Corellia. He’s a hustler and a thief, willing to do anything and everything necessary to gain freedom for himself and his love, a woman named Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, TV’s “Game of Thrones”). He attempts to bribe an Imperial officer to get the two of them through a checkpoint and onto a ship heading off-world. Unfortunately, while Han gets through, Qi’ra is caught. Desperate to become a pilot and find a way to save Qi’ra, Han enlists in the Imperial Navy (also acquiring his iconic surname at the same time).

Unfortunately, Han instead winds up as a foot soldier, spending three years fighting and barely surviving as the Empire continued its planetary conquests. It is on one such battlefield that Han meets Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, “Shock and Awe”), a smuggler and criminal looking to pull a heist. After an initial blowoff by Beckett inadvertently leads to the meet-cute and subsequent partnership of Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), the newly-formed duo joins Beckett and his crew.

Circumstances lead to disaster, leaving Han, Chewie and Tobias to confess their failure to crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, “Avengers: Infinity War”), a big-time operative of the Crimson Dawn syndicate. Han is reunited with Qi’ra, who now works for Vos; she manages to convince Vos to give Han and company another chance.

That chance requires a ship, however – something they don’t have. To get one, they have to have help. Specifically, the help of the velvety-smooth, sartorially-splendid smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, TV’s “Atlanta”), whose ship is – you guessed it – the Millennium Falcon. Lando and his co-pilot (and droid rights activist) L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, “Goodbye Christopher Robin”) join the crew as they undertake the seemingly impossible.

(Oh yeah – it’s the Kessel Run. We get to see the Kessel Run.)

Of course, it isn’t as easy as all that. Han quickly learns that there are very few people out there that he can trust; even his alliances are uneasy ones, subject to potential reversal at every turn. And sometimes even enemies turn out to be more than they appear. Yet despite it all, a good heart still beats beneath Han’s scoundrel’s exterior.

Maybe the biggest issue with “Solo” is how inessential it feels. It’s a perfectly fine movie, but there’s nothing revelatory about the story that would make its telling necessary. That lack of overall impact undercuts the film in a real way.

Some of that springs from the screenplay, co-written by “Empire” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan; too much of the narrative feels lacking in genuine stakes. Some of that comes from the director’s chair; Howard is a talented filmmaker, but a movie like this one needs someone a bit more adventurous behind the camera. And some of it comes from the general tumultuousness of the production.

All that aside, it’s still pretty fun. There’s some strong wiseguy banter and some great set pieces that really capture that heist movie vibe. And seriously – the Kessel Run, you guys. So awesome.

As for the performances, well … it depends on your perspective. I really dug what Ehrenreich did, crafting a turn that is largely an homage to Harrison Ford’s origination of the role. The swagger, the smug smirk … it’s there. The spirit of the thing is there. Double all of that for Glover, whose performance seemingly hopped out of a time machine from the late 1970s. He oozes the effortless cool that Billy Dee Williams gave the character; Glover’s as charming a rogue as ever charmed and/or rogued. I enjoyed them both, but I could see some audiences having an issue with what sometimes feels more like an impression rather than an original performance.

Harrelson is a highlight; he’s clearly jazzed to be in a Star Wars movie and is bringing his not-inconsiderable A-game. Clarke is probably bringing her A-game as well … such as it is. She’s a bit stiff and stilted. Bettany is a leering, scenery-chewing delight. And Thandie Newton gives a low-key excellent performance as Beckett’s wife and fellow thief.

“Solo” doesn’t succeed on the level of some of the other “Star Wars” films, but that’s OK. They can’t all be masterpieces. It’s a flawed but fun movie – imperfect, sure, but the pros outweigh the cons. You’ll have a good feeling about this.

[4 out of 5]

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