Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

With a hyperdrive boost of old school hijinks, this smuggler’s origin is a right rollicking adventure. Rebel droids rule.

The second standalone-ish instalment from even longer ago in a galaxy far, far away, Solo: A Star Wars Story goes back a little bit further than Rogue One to tell the origin of everyone’s favourite rogue, with Alden Ehrenreich gamely stepping into the nerf-herding smuggler’s shoes so recently vacated by Harrison Ford.

A tough act to follow, for sure, things got off to a wobbly start when franchise custodian Kathleen Kennedy fired original directorial duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, allegedly because their free-balling improv style clashed with series veteran writer Lawrence Kasdan’s vision, as co-written with son Jonathan.

However turbulent the take off, hyperdrive speed substitution and Apollo 13 director Ron Howard has ably delivered a fun romp through space that has much of the seat of your pants, gung ho adventuresome spirit of the originals.

We first meet a more idealistic but still sneaky orphan Han (not yet possessed of a surname) in the grimy docklands of Corellia, where the spectre of the Empire is evident in the ominous construction of vast Star Destroyers. Plotting his escape from the literally sluggish Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt), a Dickensian villain who collects runaway kids and forces them to steal for their supper, Han has a Bonnie and Clyde vibe going with partner in crime Qi’ra (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke). Sweeter in practice than the electric frisson of Ford and the late Carrie Fisher, they are nonetheless easy to root for. A quick double cross and both almost make it off planet, but she’s lost at the last minute.

Jumping forward three years, Han has joined the Empirical fleet in the hopes of becoming a pilot and somehow making his way back to Qi’ra, but that plan’s already been derailed. Kicked out for his inability to follow orders, he’s now a grunt mired in the mud of a hellish battle that’s bleaker even than Rogue One’s war movie machinery. It’s here in hopelessness that Han runs into a band of bandits led by an ever-charismatic Woody Harrelson as Beckett and a sorely under-served Thandie Newton as his partner Val.

Despite her protestations, Beckett sees something in the hungry young kid and – after the hilariously rancor-like introduction of a seriously pissed off Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) –­ the not quite BFFs inveigle their way onto the smugglers’ ship.

This leads to the film’s most stunning set piece, an awe-inspiring train raid as they aim for a carriage load of the Empire’s rocket fuel to sell to gangster syndicate the Crimson Dawn, as led by the sneeringly malevolent Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Along with an early, frenetic hover car chase, it’s a rare example of CGI having real weight, one of Solo’s key key strengths. The worlds established herein feel far more lived in than is often the case, from the choking smoke of Corellia to the burning sands of Savareen.

When that heist doesn’t go quite according to plan, the newly formed gang finds themselves having to come up with another way to clear their debts, this time aided by none other than Qi’ra, who has made her own deal with the devil to save her soul and now works for Vos.

But first they need a ship. A very fast ship. And that leads them to a magnificent Donald Glover’s smooth as a silk cape Lando Calrissian, a fabled card game, the Millenium Falcon and the ‘how many parsecs?’ Kessell Run. And this is where it gets really fun, as these not-yet-old scoundrels bounce off each other in half-territorial, half-flirty fashion. Despite their obvious joy in tussling, Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-Bridge manages to steal the show from both of them as nascent rebel leader and old romantic droid L3-37, raising some interesting questions about just how ‘pansexual’ Lando is.

Confident enough to play lovingly in the familiar sand box but without re-treading certain stale beats (no Death Star equivalent here folks) this is an energetic origin that allows Ehrenreich and Glover the space to find their own groove within the swaggering gait of these immortal pop culture characters. If the film falters slightly in just how quickly characters move past brutal separations (three times, no less), then it manages to ride it out on the in-built heart of these much-loved creations and the far out scenarios it throws them into with gusto.

There’s a fabulously Lovecraftian beast for the pair and their gang to face off against in the maw of a black hole before a final act flourish that delivers the movie’s biggest surprise, suggesting that we might not have seen the last of these future friends. I, for one, hope we haven’t.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords