Saturday, May 26, 2018

'Solo' movie review: She has it where it counts

The closer it got to the release date of “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” the more interested I became. The brilliant marketing ploy of using basketball great Dwayne Wade in a set of NBA commercials with Chewbacca under the tagline of “who’s your co-pilot” certainly helped.

So it’s no surprise this lifelong “Star Wars” fan saw the Thursday night screening of “Solo,” a fun film.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm and the “Star Wars” franchise from creator George Lucas, one of the first non-movie moves it made was to wipe out the Extended Universe novels as canon. Disney then started reprinting those books – which are far superior to the ones published now since the buy-out – under the banner LEGENDS.

But don’t think for a moment that Disney is afraid to use that same source material for its “Star Wars” movies.

After all, Han Solo and Princess Leia have a child named Ben Solo and like their male twin son (Ben’s older brother Jacen) from the EU/”Legends” stories, Ben Solo trains to be a Jedi Knight under his uncle, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. Both the movie Ben and EU Jacen Solo adopt a different name as they fall to the Dark Side and take over what’s left of the Galactic Empire.

In the same way, “Solo” uses the same EU/LEGENDS foundation for its storyline, such as Han Solo leaving his home planet of Corellia and joining the Empire. (That unintentionally ties into the theme of running away I discovered in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”)

The following connections to the novels shouldn’t be considered “Solo” spoilers as these plot-points have been spelled out in either the trailers or the recaps of the movie and/or could be logically assumed. Regardless, I will mention those after the page break.

Just as in the EU, Han Solo defects from the Empire and befriends Chewbacca, having rescued him from being enslaved. Do the swoop bikes driven by the Marauders and Crimson Dawn, the name of an obscure EU crime syndicate, in the movie sound familiar? Again, all part of the pre-Disney novel universe.

As hinted at in “The Empire Strikes Back” and depicted in the EU prequel HAN SOLO TRILOGY by A.C. Crispin, Solo wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian by playing the card game Sabaac. The rules aren’t laid out in “Solo,” but it’s clear the film version is close to poker yet doesn’t have the randomizer essential to the novels.

Do you remember how Lando (Billy Dee Williams) pronounces Han Solo’s first name with a long “a” when he first sees his “old buddy” on Cloud City in “Empire” – yet the rest of the characters pronounce “Han” with an “ah” sound? That’s explained in “Solo” as Donald Glover’s equally suave and charismatic Lando mispronounces Solo’s first name the first time they meet at a Sabaac table.

Of course in the original “Star Wars” film, the older Solo brags about making the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker during the cantina scene. That too is laid out in “Solo” – and why it’s such a formidable task – as is the connection to the spice mines mentioned time and time again in the novels.

One final reference to the EU/LEGENDS novels before I move onto actually reviewing the movie: In the pre-“Star Wars” trilogy by L. Neil Smith, THE LANDO CALRISSIAN ADVENTURES, Lando flies with a robot as his Falcon co-pilot.

Sure enough, there’s one in “Solo,” the very sassy, take-charge and take-no-crap L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Lando says he has been tempted to wipe L3’s memory, but her navigational skills have become instrumental to his success in navigating the galaxy as a smuggler.

Director Ron Howard delivers a solid and entertaining film. “Solo” takes a bit to find its footing, especially as the movie builds its core of characters. When Solo, Chewie, Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra and Glover’s Lando start working together, the movie starts working as well. The movie also works best when Howard steps away from using a blue palette, as seen in much of the opening minutes and Kessel Run sequence.

Actor Alden Ehrenreich doesn’t do anything to mimic Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, much less make us forget his “scruffy-looking nerfherder” (and we shouldn’t). However, Ehrenreich is more than up to the formidable task of embodying the cocky pilot who is willing to tell anybody who will listen he’s the best in the galaxy. His posture also helps sell it.

Ehrenreich doesn’t talk or look much like a young Ford as Solo (although the makeup department added a subtle scar to Ehrenreich’s chin.) Honestly the iconic Han Solo wardrobe – with his black Imperial pants, leather jacket, tall boots and his low-hung belt and holster – are the biggest assists throughout most of the movie.

It took me a while to completely buy the “new”/young Han Solo instead of seeing the character as a young man with big dreams set in a science fiction universe that resembles “Star Wars.”

Ehrenreich’s Solo is more apt make it up as situations arise than the classic Solo. Regardless, he’s a young man who has enough charisma to be charming and convince people to let him get involved into almost any circumstance – say a Sabaac game where he doesn’t actually have the ship he says he does. This Solo also ends up doing the right thing; although he wants be seen as a tough guy.

The young Solo hasn’t learned to be cynical yet, so he tends to be on the trusting side. Smuggler Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, delivering another solid performance) even warns him “assume everyone will betray you” – which isn’t just foreshadowing to Lando turning Solo over to Darth Vader in “Empire.”

In fact, there are so many connections of who is working for whom and who owes what to whom that I need to see the movie again, if only to better figure out that part of the storyline. And if you don’t completely understand all those complications, don’t sweat it; “Solo” remains enjoyable.

Not surprisingly, “Solo” starts clicking when Chewbacca makes his first onscreen performance. Remember how Solo tells C-3PO in “Star Wars” that Wookiees have a repuation for pulling out someone's arms? That's legitimate. Yet despite a dark past – addressed by FORBES in this spoiler-filled article – actor Joonas Suotamo delivers the Chewie we've known and loved.

The movie truly comes into its own by the time Chewie and Han meet Lando. There is no mention of a life debt – an integral part of the unbreakable Han-Chewie friendship in the EU novels – however it’s easy to see why the two bond quickly. Ehrenreich and Suotamo have great onscreen chemistry, an essential part of this story, their friendship and what makes the “Star Wars” universe so special.
Chewbacca actor Joonas Suotamo cocks his head in this shot from "Solo: A Star Wars Story." Courtesy of
Actress Emilia Clarke is a sweet yet sultry Qi’ra (pronounced “Key-rah”); she’s no damsel in distress and is easy enough to like. What happens to her between the time she and Solo are separated on Corellia to when they are reunited is left unsaid, which would usually bother me. In this case, imagining what she endured in those three-plus years is sufficient.

"Solo" character movie posters via Movieweb
“Solo” puts an exclamation point on what Lucasfilm has done best with the “Star Wars” universe so far in the Disney era – make better standalone “Anthology” films better than saga ones.

Allow me to chase a rabbit here, or maybe the better comparison is chasing a free-thinking astromech droid without a restraining bolt. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” while overall enjoyable, is a mixed bag that puts director J.J. Abrams and the writing crew in a tough spot to bring some sense of closure and satisfying conclusion to the Rey trilogy. In many ways, “The Last Jedi” is as much an “Empire” homage as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a love letter to the first film.

The original characters are far more interesting than the new ones, so it’s natural that the “Anthology” movies are more fascinating and tell better stories. In a weird twist, the two standalone flicks have been the more enjoyable, and to certain extent, more original movie-going experiences than the conventional “Force Awakens” and cliché-heavy “Last Jedi.”

Ron Howard’s movie is popcorn-light compared to the much more intense “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” – and inherently less daring, since it contains characters from the original trilogy. “Solo” is similar to the Millennium Falcon; she’s a little rough around the edges, but “she’s got it where it counts” and knows when it’s important to make the jump to lightspeed.

Grade: B+

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