Chewbacca, I recognize. Lando Calrissian? He seems familiar. But this is not my Han Solo.
Solo: A Star Wars Story was only going to soar if one thing rang true: Alden Ehrenreich’s portrayal of the iconic Harrison Ford character. And while there are glimpses of the scruffy-looking nerf herder from the original Star Wars movies, mostly we get a surfeit of grins and cocksure comments. It’s not as if Ehrenreich is doing a bad Harrison Ford impression. (If anything, he’s doing an impression of a young, weaselly Leonardo DiCaprio doing a bad Harrison Ford impression.) But he’s not really doing much in place of that, either.
Keep in mind, I was rooting for Ehrenreich. With his plucky charisma as cowboy movie star Hobie Doyle, I thought he almost stole Hail, Caesar! from the likes of George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, and Josh Brolin. That’s no small task. But the challenge of channeling in-his-prime Ford, while still putting his own stamp on the Han Solo persona, proves too much. It really makes you appreciate what Chris Pine and the rest of the Enterprise crew have managed in the recent Star Trek movies.
We first meet Han as the captive/ward of Lady Proxima, a gangster who runs a network of child thieves. (Lady Proxima is like Dickens’ Fagin, if he was a 15-foot centipede.) It’s never really explained why Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are the only adults under Proxima’s control, but nevertheless they plan an escape and are separated in the process. A few years pass, during which Han hides out by joining the Empire as a pilot and then falling in with a band of mercenaries (led by Woody Harrelson).
Perhaps that outline is a misstep on the part of the screenplay (by Star Wars vet Lawrence Kasdan, along with his son Jonathan). Solo begins with such a flurry of activity—including a trench warfare sequence—that Ehrenreich is left to define the character almost entirely through action. He tosses off a few quips here and there, some of which sound like the Han of old, but nothing in these scenes provides a sense of what formed Han Solo into the smuggler we knew so well. Think of the first scenes with Rey (Daisy Ridley) going about her daily life of survival in The Force Awakens; no such quiet moments of character-building are afforded here.
Mostly we get a surfeit of grins and cocksure comments.
Eventually a pattern of action does emerge, and it’s a recognizable one: Han running away from danger to save his own skin. This is compelling, and commensurate with the Han Solo of the earlier films. But it’s also at odds with his desire to reunite with Qi’ra (which I never quite believed, thanks to a lack of chemistry between the leads). The movie, then, tries to have it both ways—Han the foolhardy romantic alongside Han the sneaky opportunist. The result is not a conflicted character, but a lack of a coherent one.
Part of this disjointedness might also be blamed on the movie’s troubled production history, in which original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) were replaced by Hollywood veteran Ron Howard. There aren’t any gaping structural cracks, but something is off, especially in terms of the humor. The jokes are all here, but they’re not organic. The punchlines are too loud, too slow, as if they’ve been imposed on the movie.
What does work? A heist sequence involving a train on a spiral mountainside track is thrilling and convincingly choreographed. And as in another Star Wars “story”—Rogue One—a new droid proves to be a scene stealer. In this case it’s L3-37, a robot rights activist amusingly voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Praise is also due to two others who managed what Ehrenreich couldn’t (although granted their bars were not as high). As Lando, Donald Glover delivers a full-on Billy Dee Williams impression—from the raised eyebrows to the smooth cadence—without ever devolving into parody. This is a young Lando auditioning for the part of Lando in The Empire Strikes Back. Just as good, if deceptively so, is Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca (in his second stint in the role after The Last Jedi). It’s a performance of affectionate mimicry, recreating the curious head tilts, wide gait, and quick temper established by Peter Mayhew in the original series. Suotamo also establishes crucial chemistry with Ehrenreich, so that once Han and Chewie get in the groove, things began to feel more familiar while at the same time excitingly new. If further Han Solo movies are going to work, he better keep the big guy close.