"SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY" — 3 stars — Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke; PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi action/violence); in general release
Ron Howard's "Solo: A Star Wars Story" isn't the best "Star Wars" movie; it probably isn't even the best of the "new" "Star Wars" movies. But it's a fun action romp that aims to please diehard fans and newcomers alike, and considering all its behind-the-scenes drama, Howard's final product is a welcome sigh of relief.
The film — which takes place somewhere between the events of 2005's "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith" and 2016's "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (a prequel to "Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope") — is an origin story for Han Solo, the smuggler scoundrel with a heart of gold who prefers a good blaster to all that Jedi lightsaber business.
We meet young Han (Alden Ehrenreich stepping into the celebrated shoes of Harrison Ford) on his home planet of Corellia, a dingy, classic run-down hole on the wrong side of the galactic train tracks. Han is surviving on his wits and his already obvious talent as a pilot, and hoping to escape to better things with his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). Their world is run by crime lords and the long shadow of the Galactic Empire, and the currency is hyperfuel — the precious substance used to get spaceships up to light speed.
In an exciting opening sequence, Han and Qi'ra are separated while trying to escape a worm-shaped underworld kingpin named Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt), and the aspiring pilot winds up joining the Empire. Fast-forward three years and Han is ready for a new challenge, which arrives in the form of a new best friend — a familiar 8-foot Bigfoot lookalike named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) — and a small crew of thieves led by a smuggler named Beckett (Woody Harrelson).
"Solo" is all about giving longtime fans the story of how Han became the cool character Luke Skywalker meets in a dingy Tatooine cantina in 1977's original "Star Wars" film, and Howard's film delivers on all those major notes, bringing Han together with longtime frenemy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and, of course, his iconic spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, seen here before Han has had a chance to make all of his "special modifications."
As far as a plot, "Solo" eventually settles in on a story that sends Han and Beckett's crew off to steal enough raw coaxium (the material used to make hyperfuel) to pay off Beckett's debt to a crime lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). As you might imagine, this plot also brings Han back together with Qi'ra, albeit with a few surprises.
The result is a swashbuckling adventure that features plenty of blasters and nary a lightsaber in sight. Howard's effort is more of a space Western, and the absence of John Williams at the soundtrack helm — aside from a few customary theme nods here and there — also works to give the film its own unique feel.
Ehrenreich won't be making anyone forget Ford, but his take on the famous smuggler isn't distracting, either, and in this case, that might be just as good. Ehrenreich is actually pretty fun in the role, as is Glover, who is clearly enjoying his chance to step into the suave shoes of Billy Dee Williams.
If you want to dig deep, you'll find place for complaints. Given Han's character arc in the original trilogy, his journey might feel a little odd here. Considering the condition we find him in at the start of "A New Hope," it would be easy to expect a very dark ending to "Solo," but, without giving anything away, it's not quite as dark as it could have been.
Still, in spite of the inevitable nitpicking, this is a fun movie. It has plenty of action and an entertaining story, even if it gets a little too muddled toward the end. "Solo: A Star Wars Story" will probably wind up somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of everyone's favorite "Star Wars" films, but an average "Star Wars" movie is nothing to complain about.
"Solo: A Star Wars Story" is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence; running time: 135 minutes.