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MOVIES: Solo: A Star Wars Story - Review

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Solo: A Star Wars Story, the second film in Lucasfilm's anthology of spinoff adventures, enjoyed its fair share of controversy en route to the big screen, with rumors of acting coaches being employed to help its star find his footing, and the surprise departure of original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller just a few weeks before the end of principal photography. Veteran helmer Ron Howard was brought in to help steer the ship for the rest of the journey, and while many remained apprehensive that Solo would be the first significant misfire since Disney purchased the Lucasfilm library back in 2012, the end result is anything but.

First, let's get something out of the way: Alden Ehrenreich neither looks nor sounds like the 35-year-old Harrison Ford who first brought the character of Han Solo to life in 1977. Wisely, rather than trying to emulate Ford's iconic portrayal by mimicking his speech or mannerisms, Ehrenreich focuses more on capturing the essence of the character, and Han's signature combination of confidence and charm fits the talented young actor like a glove. Die-hard fans will undoubtedly find small things to nitpick, but Ehrenreich proves himself more than capable of carrying a major tentpole release (and likely a few sequels).

The film opens on Corellian, a grimy industrial planet where Han and his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) eke out a meager living running jobs for local crime boss Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt), trying to scrape together enough credits to buy their way offworld. When a scam falls apart, Han enlists in the Imperial Army with dreams of becoming a pilot, but the harsh reality of war finds him "bringing peace" to the galaxy by subjugating the citizens of whatever world the Empire invades next. When a ranking officer commands him to "eliminate the hostiles," Han shoots back "it's their planet - we're the hostiles," a retort that does little to endear him to his commander and buys him a one-way ticket into a cell.

But Han's distaste for war catches the eye of professional thief Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who just so happens to be putting together a crew to intercept a shipment of coaxium, the most expensive hyperfuel money can buy. It's the kind of job that will end with a payoff big enough for Han to buy his own ship and get back to Qi'ra, provided that he doesn't run afoul of crime syndicate Crimson Dawn, whose leader Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) is financing the job, and who has a rather unexpected connection to Han's past.

Working decidedly in Solo's favor are the relatively low stakes of the adventure - sure, the acquisition of one of the galaxy's most precious resources will change the lives of everyone involved, but the story feels much smaller when compared to the films of the "Skywalker saga," where the fate of an entire galaxy rests on the shoulders of our heroes. The narrative feels more contained and more intimate, and allows us to become invested in these characters without pondering how they fit into the larger tale of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, etc. As one character tells Han, this isn't a game you can win - the objective is merely to stay in it as long as possible.

The cast is uniformly great, with Ehrenreich exhibiting the kind of swagger befitting a leading man, and Clarke proving that she has plenty more to offer than scowling and commanding dragons on television's most popular series. Bettany seems to enjoy chewing a fair bit of scenery as the extravagant crime boss, and Harrelson is just as dependable as we've come to expect, but it's no surprise that Donald Glover steals a number of scenes out from under his fellow castmates. Whereas Ehrenreich doesn't even attempt to replicate Harrison Ford's performance, Glover takes the opposite approach with a spot-on recreation of Billy Dee Williams' performance as smooth-talking gambler Lando Calrissian, so pitch perfect that when he speaks offscreen you would swear it's Williams himself returning to the role.

If there's one major criticism to be levied against Solo, it's that much of the film is too dark, with characters spending inordinate amounts of team skulking around dimly lit environments. For a time, I wondered if some sort of technical issue was afflicting the screen at my local cinema, but things eventually brightened up for one of the film's most thrilling sequences, a daring heist aboard that takes place atop a train as it weaves it ways through snow-covered canyons. By stark contrast, the legendary (and practically obligatory) Kessel Run occurs against the backdrop of a turbulent space storm, all swirling clouds and flying debris, which makes it hard to appreciate much of the detail in cinematographer Bradford Young's work.

Fans hoping to experience some of the most important parts of Han's legacy will have plenty to look forward to here, including the genesis of his lifelong friendship with Chewbacca, and an infamous game of sabacc against Lando, with the Millennium Falcon up for grabs. Through it all, Howard balances thrilling action sequences with moments of levity - the nature of Han's personality demands an uptick in the number of jokes - and delivers a worthy new chapter in this ever-expanding universe. In short, Solo is an absolute blast that contains all of the elements that make a great Star Wars film, and I can't wait to see where Han's adventures take him next.

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