Attention Harrison Ford: You don’t have to lose your shit. Alden Ehrenreich holds up his end of the bargain playing the young version of Han Solo, your iconic, smartass space cowboy. Yes, the movie ride delivered by Solo: A Star Wars Story is more mild than wild, a pleasant way to pass the time instead of a game-changer. And this thinly-sketched, stand-alone origin story doesn’t quite wipe the grin off Han’s face – it’s too timid for that. But Ehrenreich has the acting chops (he’s brilliant in the Coen brothers comedy, Hail, Caesar) to at least put a little meat on the bare-bones background of how the inexperienced Solo got his swagger on as a smuggler, befriended Chewbacca [insert Wookie roar!], win the Millennium Falcon from slick-dick gambler Lando Calrissian (a most excellent Donald Glover) and – in the face of multiple personal betrayals – grow a hard shell over his hero’s heart.
What Solo does not do is go the extra mile into the cuckooland of unbridled imagination. There were hopes when directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, of The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street, were hired that the duo walk the franchise down a new path instead of the beaten one – to give things something like the comic charge that director Taika Waititi infused into Thor: Ragnarok. Not this time. Three quarters of the way into shooting this Star Wars story, Lord and Miller were canned and director Ron Howard was brought in to allegedly steer an out-of-control ship back on course. Which the Apollo 13 director does with his customary professionalism, following the established beats in the script by Jonathan Kasdan and his father Lawrence Kasdan, whose galaxy-far-far-away resume encompasses The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.
Mere competence is, of course, not a crime against cinema. And it’s pointless to compare the wild-child ride that might have been with the traditional narrative pleasures that Howard and the Kasdans put before us. But still, a little artistic rebellion wouldn’t hurt. It might even help the movie stick in the memory instead of evaporating as soon as you leave the theater.
Solo is hobbled early by a herky-jerky start in which Han and his lady love Qi’ra (Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke, minus her blonde Khalessi tresses) are separated by bad luck and a horde of Imperial goons. Jump ahead three years and Han – surnamed Solo by a security guard because he’s a self-described orphan – has hooked up with Chewie (Joonas Suotamo), along with the wily Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and the criminal’s risk-junkie partner Val (Westworld MVP Thandie Newton).
After an exciting train heist that nearly kills them all, Han finds himself on the castle-like “yacht” of Dryden Voss, a scarfaced crime boss with a sadistic streak that won’t quit. (Cheers to Paul Bettany – the Vision himself! – for making Voss such a seductive psycho.) And wait, is that Qi’ra snuggling up to the creep? It’s a sexual love triangle like something out of the elder Kasdan’s Body Heat but without the carnal sizzle. If there’s a genre – sci-fi, western, gangster, thriller, comedy, film noir, buddy flick – that doesn’t find its way into Solo, we must have missed it.
It isn’t long before Han, Qi’ra, Chewie and Tobias all pack into the Millenium Falcon, piloted by Lando and his droid-chick L3-37, fabulously voiced and played via motion capture by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, to steal some kind of rare fuel from some kind of galactic creatures so they can appease Voss and save their asses. Along the way, they meet up with members of the Rebel Alliance and – well, we’ve said enough.
Solo: A Star Wars Story keeps throwing curveballs to distract us from the fact that we know all too well where this is heading. There’s no arguing that the actors are a likable crew, even if Harrelson, Glover and Bettany are the only three who don’t play it safe. This is a Han Solo who wants to be loved even of he doesn’t want to be liked, and when he puts his arm around the immortal Chewie it’s tough not to go “aww.” But only a glimmer of the hardassed charmer that Harrison Ford immortalized finds its way into this episode. Howard and the Kasdans play the series game without ever raising the stakes, defaulting to dull and dutiful when they might have blasted off into creative anarchy. Even the new score by John Powell (Jason Bourne) only soars when it samples the original John Williams theme. And somehow Han Solo – the roguish Star Wars hellion famous for breaking all the rules – finds himself in a feel-good movie that doesn’t break any.