We know epic adventures and memorable triumphs and lifelong bonds and in some cases Shakespearean tragedy await some of the main characters in “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”
We know where destiny will take them. We know, before they know.
This is part of what makes “Solo: A Star Wars Story” so much fun. Every time a character says something that hints at a future catch phrase; every time there’s a reference to an as-yet-unseen planet or a character who will show up later in the timeline; every time we get a glimpse of an iconic piece of equipment; every time there’s an initial meeting between characters who will share a lifelong connection — we smile and nod and maybe even clap a little, because we know EXACTLY how it’s all going to play out.
The “Solo” story (superbly directed by the veteran Ron Howard, who took over after the original co-directors were fired over the time-honored “creative differences”) takes place a decade before the events of “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” which would put Han Solo’s age right around 20.
Alden Ehrenreich (“Blue Jasmine,” “Hail, Caesar!”) is quite a bit smaller than Harrison Ford and he doesn’t bear much of a facial resemblance to the man who made Solo a legend, but Ehrenreich delivers a winning performance and does a fantastic job at foreshadowing certain characteristics and tendencies of Ford-as-Han, without delving into impersonation.
Young Han is a cocky, independent wiseass specializing in small-time thievery and smuggling — and getting into big-time trouble. He’s quick and smart and reckless and oh so green. (So green he doesn’t even have a last name at the outset of this story. How he comes to be called “Han Solo” is a plot treat I won’t spoil for you.) Han might one day become a great pilot — if he doesn’t get himself killed first.
Three years after having narrowly escaped arrest on his home planet of Corellia (called a “sewer” by one character, and we can see why), Han is still trying to cobble together the funds to buy his own ship so he can return and hopefully rescue Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), his girlfriend and partner in adventure.
Han’s first meeting with Chewbacca starts with the big ol’ Wookiee nearly killing him, and quickly progresses from alliance to true friendship. (Upon learning the big guy’s name, Han notes he’s going to have to come up with a nickname because he’s not going to say “Chewbacca” every time.)
Spotting an opportunity to make that elusive big score, Han talks his way onto a team of rogue criminals (with Chewie part of the deal). Woody Harrelson is the legendary career criminal Tobias Beckett, a charming and duplicitous sort who warns Han to never trust anyone, ever. Thandie Newton is Beckett’s partner in crime and life, Val. Jon Favreau voices the multi-limbed Ardennian pilot Rio Durant, who takes an instant liking to Han.
Han’s former girlfriend Qi’ra resurfaces and joins the team, but her story is complicated and her loyalties are divided.
Everyone in the ensemble is terrific — but the show-stopping, effortlessly scene-stealing performance of the movie comes from Donald Glover as the charming, suave, sneaky-smart gambler and pilot Lando Calrissian.
Remember what I said about Ehrenreich not really resembling or imitating Harrison Ford, and yet doing such a great job? The same applies to Glover’s interpretation of a younger Lando, who doesn’t exactly become fast friends with Han but perhaps sees a little of himself in this arrogant up-and-comer. Ehrenreich and Glover click, whether they’re facing off as rivals in a high-stakes card game, or having each other’s back when guns are blazing and bombs are exploding.
(I also loved Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s voice performance as L3-37, a brave and funny feminist droid who is Lando’s co-pilot and best friend.)
“Solo” of course has a number of massive, rapid-fire CGI action sequences, sometimes accompanied by snippets of the famous “Star Wars” theme. (There were moments in the 2-hour, 23-minute adventure when I could have gone for more quipping and fewer explosions.)
The real treasures, though, are all those pre-iconic moments, all those launching points for beautiful friendships and future conflicts. In some ways this is one of the “lighter” of the “Star Wars” adventures, as we know beyond any doubt Han, Lando and Chewie will live to fight another day. (Not that there aren’t moments of loss and sorrow and betrayal.)
This is a prequel as a space Western summer movie, entertaining as hell but not particularly deep. “Solo” takes place in rough and tumultuous times — but there’s very little philosophizing, no talk of the Force or what it means to be a true Jedi.
Even if there weren’t all those great “Star Wars” movies in our past (aka the futures of these characters), based on this adventure alone, I’d be excited to know what’s next for Han Solo.
Lucasfilm presents a film directed by Ron Howard and written by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action/violence). Running time: 143 minutes. Opens May 24 at local theaters.