Solo (Ron Howard, 2018)

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After three films and a few billion dollars earned, Disney has finally succeeded in turning Star Wars into a Marvel movie. Under the competent hands of America’s most consistently mediocre director (Ron Howard, subbing in for the LEGO guys), Solo is a perfectly fine bit of blockbuster action filmmaking, with a capable cast and some neat special effects upholding a wholly conventional screenplay with nary a hint of the idiosyncrasy that has marked every other Star Wars film, for good or for ill.

Solo is a superhero origin story, as such its ceiling is somewhat limited: it’s designed around the pleasure of recognition, rather than discovery, the solving of mysteries which didn’t need to be solved rather than exploration of a wider universe. But there are hints at broader issues: the film begins in the slums of Corellia, a manufacturing planet rife with orphans in thrall to a monstrous (literally) Fagin figure, from whom young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) scheme to escape. He does, she doesn’t, and the film skips ahead three years to Han’s desertion from the Imperial infantry to join a criminal gang led by Woody Harrelson. From there the film proceeds to its requisite three setpieces (a train robbery, a heist, and a showdown), with pauses for exposition and fill-in-the-blanks characterization. Some of the back story explanations are well-done: anything involving Chewbacca and Lando in particular, but some are just pointless or silly (how Han got his last name, Chewbacca learning to play Dejarik). The film makes a great point of fetishizing Han’s gun with pointed inserts and closeups as it takes shape, which is silly because we’re expected to believe that A) Han’s gun is iconic and B) he had the same gun for his entire life. This is I suppose part of the attempt at aping Westerns lying buried in the screenplay (though Westerns never unequivocally adored guns as much as this one seems too, even the movies named after guns like Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73), just as Harrelson’s character is supposed to recall Long John Silver or something (though with his unfortunate haircut all he reminds me of is Nazi buffoon Richard Spencer). But I don’t know, maybe someone should have read the room and realized that valorizing guns probably isn’t the best idea right now (or ever). I’m sure they hope to sell lots of toy versions though (yeah, I admit I had one 35 years ago).

Anyway, all that aside, it is a fun movie. Donald Glover of course is excellent as Lando and I really liked Ehrenreich’s performance as Han, a much more innocent take on the character than Harrison Ford’s in the original films, but a charming one nonetheless. Clarke fares less well, her character is not given much of a personality or even identity, and her scenes with Ehrenreich lack any real spark. Of the newer elements to the film, Phoebe Waller-Bridge comes off best as Lando’s friend and droid L3. Her outspoken demands for equal rights for droids are both funny and pointed, and in keeping with the ideals of revolution espoused in the last two Star Wars films (Rogue One and The Last Jedi), though it’s mostly played for a laugh, until it becomes sentimental (traditional the only two modes in Ron Howard’s directorial toolkit). Although even here Howard and his screenwriters (only the father-son teams of Lawrence and Jake Kasdan are credited) can’t resist making a call back all the way to a line in the original Star Wars, one which in a short sentence (“We don’t serve their kind here.”) conveyed more of a sense of an actual world than any of the speechifying and expositing in the Kasdans’ script. The world Han finds himself is peripheral to the Empire, and there are hints of interest to be found there, a kind of jianghu existing outside the bounds of everyday society ruled by five Triad-like gangs, only one of whom we encounter. But the film’s villain, a gang boss played by Paul Bettany, is underdeveloped and bound to a single set (a result of his late insertion into the film, replacing Michael K. Williams as an alien during reshoots, apparently), and his reputed army of henchman is weirdly small and unintimidating.

Origin stories are nearly impossible to do well, as a sampling of any first installment of a Marvel picture will tell you. Really only Tsui Hark has managed to make a great movie out of an origin story (with A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon), and that was by turning the ostensible hero into a side character for much of the film, allowing it to be driven by his mentor. There was no way of course that Disney could allow Han Solo to be a side character in a Woody Harrelson picture, so I imagine that this movie is about the best that Ron Howard and the Kasdans could produce given the inherent limitations of the project. With a glimpse at a wider underworld and a few developments in the film’s final moments, there are hints of other, more interesting chapters to come in the Young Han Solo story. Here’s hoping the corporate overlords in charge of the project allow someone with a little more vision to tell them. I’m going to go ahead and nominate Soi Cheang for the job.

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