“Solo,” the newest Disney-released foray into that galaxy far, far away, is the French vanilla of “Star Wars” movies. Its personality is a tad on the bland side, and it fights a losing battle to avoid predictability. But there's a satisfying pull to director Ron Howard's classical approach to the material, as well as a welcome reserve when it comes to doling out fan service moments. Unlike its protagonist's eventual credo, this standalone tale works well with others.
Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the beleaguered release is struggling to find an audience, here at home and (especially) abroad. Considering the reported behind-the-scenes troubles the production went through, it's safe to say Howard, who took over from “LEGO Movie” helmers Phil Lord and Chris Miller after they were unceremoniously given the boot, has managed to salvage a burning ship. It does not deserve its current box office fate.
Not to say that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is without its issues. The movie, the franchise's second “non episode” release afer that stiff piece of fanboy catnip that was “Rogue One,” gets off to a shaky start, as Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich of the Coens' “Hail, Caesar!” fame) starts out as a Dickensian street urchin attempting to steal his way into leaving Corellia, a trash heap of a planet known for its ace pilots and for the starships built there. His goal is to flee with main squeeze Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke, aka “Game of Thrones'” Mother of Dragons), but their escape, rendered through a skillfully staged chase sequence, does not go as planned.
Separated from his loved one but determined to reunite with her, Han joins the Galactic Empire's armed forces, only to see his dreams of becoming a pilot dashed as he remains an earthbound grunt. It is during a particularly chaotic skirmish that the future Rebel hero crosses paths with a band of mercenaries led by wily Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Jonathan Kasdan have a ball placing obstacles in Han's way, as he pivots his way through death-defying situations to get his foot in the door of Beckett's not-so-merry band. A train robbery with a tip of the hat to “Bridge on the River Kwai” runs the gang afoul of ruthless crime lord Dryden Vos (Howard regular Paul Bettany), who is itching for an excuse to have them all killed.
The interstellar intrigue is handled capably enough, but it takes too long for “Solo” to find its footing. Things start looking up, however, after that fateful meeting between Han and Chewbacca (Finnish basketball player-turned-thespian Joonas Suotamo), the Wookie who would become Han's right hand man. Their initial encounter, which finds their roles taking on a much different nature, is a “meet cute” right out of “Return of the Jedi.” It only underscores how “Solo” is the post-Disney purchase “Star Wars” release that most closely captures the spirit of the original trilogy.
Howard's generosity of spirit extends to all of the Kasdans' characters (even the half-baked, thinly conceived Vos), but he also retains jokes that seem tailor-made for Lord and Miller's sensibilities. Under Howard's more square stewardship, the one-liners tend to land with a thud more often than not. It's safe to say there have never been as many double entendres on a “Star Wars” feature.
Which fit the younger Lando Calrissian (an effortlessly charming Donald Glover) like a glove, or, we should say, like one of his florid capes. Jonathan Kasdan raised a few eyebrows, and elicited more than a few groans, when he said he conceived of the suave swindler first introduced in “The Empire Strikes Back” as pansexual. “Why even go there when that element doesn't come into play in the narrative?” critics carped. But it's clear Kasdan and Howard are winking at the audience plenty. Sizing up Han, Lando smiles and purrs, “You are adorable.” It's easy to see why Lando's fembot associate, L3-37 (voiced by English TV vet Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is nursing an unrequited longing for him.
A game of cards pitting Han versus Lando leads to an uneasy alliance, as well as Han's frst encounter with a brand-new Millennium Falcon. Let's give credit to Howard for trying to ensure “Solo” steers clear of that new car smell. He imbues this sci-fi adventure with a Western's grit and more measured pacing, even as the film's depiction of its main character lacks the swagger that Harrison Ford brought to the role. Ehrenreich is at his best when he doesn't try hard so hard to capture the older star's wise-ass veneer. One may argue that the reason so many moviegoers have stayed away is that they took a look at Ehrenreich in the trailers and simply did not see a younger Ford. You're not wrong, but that shouldn't be a cause to give this enjoyable space romp the cold shoulder.
Because once the film places its characters inside the Millennium Falcon, “Solo” fires on all cylinders. An expertly executed battle sequence turns up the heat (and looks nifty on an IMAX screen). The stakes here are not the fate of the Rebellion or freedom across the galaxy as in the Episodes, and Howard makes that modest scale work in the film's favor.
He's ably assisted by cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival,” “Selma”), whose crisp, dark-toned lensing prevents the film from feeling too generic. There have been complaints of some shots being too dark, but I can assure you it has a lot more to do with an auditorium's dim projector bulb than Young's penchant to find different shades of black in low light. Whatever you do, do not go see “Solo” in 3D.
“Solo” revels in retro fun without groveling for fans' approval. (It doesn't need to do so. The cosplaying moviegoers at the showing I attended seemed pleased with the end result, even as they continue to trash, unfairly, last year's “The Last Jedi,” for my money, the most ambitious and intriguing of the newest chapters.) It also grinds its way to a climactic confrontation that overdoses in double-crosses. The continuous rug-pulling is meant to keep viewers on their toes, but it still doesn't change the fact that the film ends up more or less where you were expecting it to.
But the pluses here outweigh the minuses. As early summer-movie diversions go, you could do far worse than “Solo.” Sure, part of me is still jonesing to see the semi-improvisational comedic bits Lord and Miller were working on. But it's hard to hold a grudge against Howard, who was able to come in at the eleventh hour and mold genial popcorn fare out of a production in crisis. Because sometimes, when you go to the movies, you want to bask in the comfort of the tried and true. On that regard, “Solo” delivers in spades.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is out now in wide release. Taking into consideration Bradford Young's inclination for low lighting, seek out a nicer screen. IMAX in 2D would be the ideal format.