Skip to main content

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story
(2018)

(SPOILERS) I had an agreeably good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.


It looks as if reactions to the movie will prove very mixed – less divisive than The Last Jedi maybe, but what isn't? For my part, I’d say it lacks the highs of that episode but also manages to avoid the lows. Solo has going for it, besides a pitch-perfect central relationship between Han and Chewie (Joonas Suotamo), a very solid meat-and-potatoes screenplay from Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan, refreshing in itself after a trio of movies at best only partially delivering on that score. It’s also Howard putting it his best journeyman foot forward (so the guy who made RansomRush and Apollo 13 rather than the Da Vinci Codes or Russell Crowe Oscar bait); you wouldn’t be remotely aware of the production issues if you watched it cold, and you wouldn’t recognise the work here as bearing any relation to the earlier Lucasfilm helmer, the one who delivered a leaden Star Wars-with-Lord of the Rings chainmail franchise non-starter in Willow (lest we forget, he was also offered The Phantom Menace). 


If Solo loses its momentum a little during the middle act, there's nothing that compares to the deal breaker of Canto Bight in The Last Jedi. The first forty minutes or so charge forward with commendable confidence (rather than as if they’re blundering about, hoping to seize upon some kind of narrative thread or purpose). Sure, potentially infuriating motifs surface: how Han got his name – as someone pointed out, if you absolutely have to go there, it makes much more sense for him to brand himself as a loner through a false sense of bravado – got his gun etc. But for whatever reason, they weren't intrusive to the point of distraction, any more than namechecking Bossk of having Paul Bettany's villain Dryden Vos show off a prominent suit of Mandalorian armour in his den (because he once was one?) It’s a case of mileage may vary, I guess. I liked the circumstances of Han meeting Chewbacca and their almost instantaneous rapport (less keen on Chewie's yen to free his people, as it feels like a futile attempt to bridge his unwise Revenge of the Sith presence with the Original Trilogy). 


The opening scenes on Corellia are largely a success, complete with Jabba-variant crime boss Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt; instead of a slug, a slithery mollusc thing) and a precursor scene in which Han tries to talk his way out of trouble. Where things stumble amounts to one of the picture's more pervasive missteps, signposted by the trailers and her more general career (I'll give her Me Before You): Emilia Clarke. If Bettany as Vos is a good Blake's 7 performance in search of a character (he has the occasional nice line – "Alright, let’s eat a little, drink a lot, and talk privately" – and I like how he greets Chewbacca, but he can only do so much), Qi'ra is a character with potential – more so than either of the saga's other recent lead female characters (Rey and Jyn) – in search of a strong performance. 


The Kasdans have set her up with a strong arc, omitting to reveal everything in a purposeful manner and leaving the door open for further conflicting loyalties and a sequel rematch. Unfortunately, I've no interest in seeing whatever Qi'ra gets up to next because Clarke is so unengaging. She's not even actively bad; she's just bland. One might make the case that her obviously-wrong-for-him presence helps underpin Han's future disenchantment and cynicism, eventually turning him into the Harrison we know, but it's more impactful if we can appreciate in the first place why he feels so much for the woman who betrays him (also on the debit side, it's true that their reunion on Mimban is a coincidence screaming for some kind of valid explanation, but I was honestly more relieved that we didn’t have to go through a "return to Corellia for the girl Han loves" number).


Han's embarking on fully fledged outlaw career has fewer encumbrances, mainly because Woody Harrelson is effortlessly winning as quasi-mentor Tobias Beckett. It's also a nice touch that Han's been serving in the Empire for two-and-a-half years before he absconds (much more daring in itself than Finn's five-minute flirtation with the First Order); and those "Join the Empire" promo reels are marvellous, taking their cues from Starship Troopers' satirical bent. Ehrenreich and Harrelson bounce agreeably off each other, and the Kasdans set up the various twists and double-crosses with aplomb. 


True, Jon Favreau's multi-armed pilot Rio Durant leaves little impression, and Thandie Newton's Val Beckett is entirely underserved (particularly her self-immolation for no good reason), but the Vandor train heist is excitingly staged, and if Han's honourable side winning out occasionally strays across a fine line into over-emphasis (having Qi'ra and Tobias extol as much at various points is unnecessarily on-the-nose), I generally think the Han-does-the-right-thing aspect goes the only way it can for the movie. 


After all, he doesn't break off his mission to help Chewie in the revolt on Kessel. And he isn't such a good guy that he doesn't shoot Beckett first; you can bet that's (Larry) Kasdan saying "No way are you getting away with that Greedo retcon, George". That he opts to aid the Cloud Riders is a bit of a bitter pill, to the extent that their characterisation is on the winsome side (while it isn't wholly Erin Kellyman's fault that Enfys Nest is utterly unmemorable once unmasked – the reveal a call back to Boushh? – it doesn’t help that she’s entirely without presence). But it's consistent with that Han/Indy late '70s/ early '80s Ford characterisation, and very much Temple of Doom meets Beyond Thunderdome in its anti-hero aiding the kids and downtrodden. It's also a pill that goes down better for the plot elements thrown into the mix in tandem – the ruses and strategies. 


Lando? Donald Glover's so hot right now, and he undoubtedly makes a good Lando, albeit the character's possibly even more limited in presence than he was in The Empire Strikes Back, but I was honestly more impressed by Ehrenreich (most responses have it in reverse, that Glover entirely eclipses him). He isn't quite as smooth as Billy Dee Williams, although that's quite possibly intentional (he fancies himself as the Lando he'll become, hence dictating his memoirs and telling braggy stories), but he and Ehrenreich play well of each other, which bodes well for the future (Lando storming off with "I don’t ever want to see you again" followed by Han's perfectly timed "Never?"). I liked almost everything the Kasdans give him to do, from cheating at cards to leaving Han stranded, to having an entire closet full of capes. Almost…


What really, entirely, uncontestably doesn't work in this movie is Phoebe Waller-Bridge's L3-37. It's an attempt at contemporary humour and delivery as jarring as those podrace commentators in The Phantom Menace (one element Rogue One got contrastingly right was making it's droid actually funny – and affecting when it sacrificed itself). None of her jokes land (many laced with off-beam sexual innuendo) and the performance generally feels as if the producers knew this wasn't working tonally but were afraid to add it to the litany of busts littering the production's history; certainly, if this was representative of the approach Lord and Miller were taking, we dodged a bullet when Kathleen Kennedy called time. Consequently, nothing related to the L3 carries weight, including her initiating the rebellion on Kessell and most importantly her relationship with Lando. It's impossible to see what he's getting worked up about when she croaks, which in succession to the demises of Rio and Val means the movie's on a par with Rogue One for seeding indifference to deaths of its characters. Except that in L3's case I was actively relieved.


The Kessel Run sequence, with its Lovecraftian space squid – Harrelson’s scream on seeing it is one of the movie’s funniest moments – is fun but unremarkable for such a famous element of lore. You could argue it as a reflection of Han's "you should have seen the one that got away" boasting, but mostly it’s a problem with the time vs distance definition of a parsec. Whether a parsec in Star Wars is a reference to one or the other – officially, it's the latter, and played out here accordingly – it's largely received by casual viewers (non-ardent fans), and Han himself in A New Hope, as the former, making the run something of a disappointment when set alongside the (splinter of the) mind's eye's image of the race he was involved in. Nevertheless, the stacking of elements – the raw coaxium that will explode if they don’t get it processed in time – amounts to a solid foundation for the scene.


Random observations. John Powell provides a serviceable score, but it's only really lifted when familiar Williams cues filter through. Bradford Young's photography offers a strong sense of mood, burnishing an appropriately lived-in universe. The reheated design elements fit well, particularly the pre-grunge Falcon. Chewbacca is evidently a handsome Wookie, as the one main one we meet in the mines resembles Harry from Bigfoot and the Hendersons. I didn't catch Anthony Daniels and didn't realise Warwick Davies was playing the same character as in The Phantom Menace (to equally underwhelming effect). As for Darth Maul… 


On the one hand, it should be depressing that Lucasfilm is so enfeebled, they can't envision a Star Wars movie without the Force (or Imperial forces). But that isn't really what bothered me. I naturally assumed this must be some weak sauce generational thing, paralleling Kylo obsessed with grandpops; Darth Maulson out to avenge pappy's dismemberment with his recovered lightsabre etc. That it's actually Darth Maul is about as fanfic as it gets (which is very fanfic, given its prequel trilogy fanfic), the kind of thing you used to get with Darth Vader surviving the end of Return of the Jedi or the Emperor being cloned. You know, the product of a mind exhausted of any creative avenues (the sort of mind that comes up with the First Order or Starkiller Base). 


I didn't realise Maul surviving had the precedence of The Clone Wars– so was presumably Lucas endorsed – and Star Wars Rebels. That he found himself a pair of robot spider legs and then some normal robot ones (did he get himself some robot intestines too?) Or that he had numerous rematches with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Disappointing – to me at least – that the distinctive tones of Peter Serafinowicz weren’t reemployed along with Ray Park, and that instead it was his cartoon voice Sam Witwer. Apparently, those series are canon, so I guess we're unlikely to see Maul's second death at Ben’s hand in the mooted Obi-Wan movie as it’s already been done.


As much as I was underwhelmed by Rogue One– and its clumsy intrusions of continuity, complete with eyesore virtual doubles – I left Solo moderately enthused. Crucially, Howard remembers that the Star Wars movies ought to have moments of enthralling uplift and abandon amidst the serious business, something the Disney era generally seems to have forgotten. Whether it's enough to make Solo the hit it might have been had it been released pre-The Last Jedi will become clear soon enough (its modest hype levels and predicted opening weekend are definitely a sign of a shift, and it can't just be put down to brand overexposure). 


We've just had a Boba Fett movie announced (to replace the Josh Trank one that didn't even get to that far), helmed by James Mangold, a sign that Lucasfilm is taking the safe pair of journeyman hands approach we saw here with Howard rather than resting hope on chancy new blood and fresh takes. But it should probably be more of a surprise Kennedy wasn't doing that anyway, given the conservative storylines that have informed the Disney era. Even Rian Johnson has been more characterised by what he reacted against than what he introduced. Solo: A Star Wars Story is clearly setting up a Solo 2 (Han off to create a rift with Jabba), but if this one stiffs – by which I mean, makes under a billion, particularly since, cost-wise, they filmed it twice – we could find plot elements transferred into the mooted Lando spinoff. Which, and I'd never have countenanced this back when I had a bad feeling about Solo, would be a shame.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Your honor, with all due respect: if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it.

The Verdict (1982)
(SPOILERS) Sidney Lumet’s return to the legal arena, with results every bit as compelling as 12 Angry Men a quarter of a century earlier. This time the focus is on the lawyer, in the form of Paul Newman’s washed-up ambulance chaser Frank Galvin, given a case that finally matters to him. In less capable hands, The Verdict could easily have resorted to a punch-the-air piece of Hollywood cheese, but, thanks to Lumet’s earthy instincts and a sharp, unsentimental screenplay from David Mamet, this redemption tale is one of the genre’s very best.

And it could easily have been otherwise. The Verdict went through several line-ups of writer, director and lead, before reverting to Mamet’s original screenplay. There was Arthur Hiller, who didn’t like the script. Robert Redford, who didn’t like the subsequent Jay Presson Allen script and brought in James Bridges (Redford didn’t like that either). Finally, the producers got the hump with the luxuriantly golden-haired star for meetin…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

The simple fact is, your killer is in your midst. Your killer is one of you.

The Avengers 5.12: The Superlative Seven
I’ve always rather liked this one, basic as it is in premise. If the title consciously evokes The Magnificent Seven, to flippant effect, the content is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but played out with titans of their respective crafts – including John Steed, naturally – encountering diminishing returns. It also boasts a cast of soon-to-be-famous types (Charlotte Rampling, Brian Blessed, Donald Sutherland), and the return of one John Hollis (2.16: Warlock, 4.7: The Cybernauts). Kanwitch ROCKS!

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Who are you and why do you know so much about car washes?

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
(SPOILERS) The belated arrival of the Ant-Man sequel on UK shores may have been legitimately down to World Cup programming, but it nevertheless adds to the sense that this is the inessential little sibling of the MCU, not really expected to challenge the grosses of a Doctor Strange, let alone the gargantuan takes of its two predecessors this year. Empire magazine ran with this diminution, expressing disappointment that it was "comparatively minor and light-hitting" and "lacks the scale and ambition of recent Marvel entries". Far from deficits, for my money these should be regard as accolades bestowed upon Ant-Man and the Wasp; it understands exactly the zone its operating in, yielding greater dividends than the three most recent prior Marvel entries the review cites in its efforts at point scoring.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

You use a scalpel. I prefer a hammer.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
(SPOILERS) The latest instalment of the impossibly consistent in quality Mission: Impossible franchise has been hailed as the best yet, and with but a single dud among the sextet that’s a considerable accolade. I’m not sure it's entirely deserved – there’s a particular repeated thematic blunder designed to add some weight in a "hero's validation" sense that not only falls flat, but also actively detracts from the whole – but as a piece of action filmmaking, returning director Christopher McQuarrie has done it again. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an incredible accomplishment, the best of its ilk this side of Mad Max: Fury Road.