Alden Ehrenreich is Han Solo, Donald Glover is Lando Calrissian and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is L3-37 in SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY.

Solo: A Star Wars Story spoiler-free review

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A space western featuring everyone’s favourite scruffy looking nerf herder and his faithful buddy? Pretty much…

At heart, Solo: A Star Wars Story (we’ll just say Solo for now, yeah?) is a western – and a half-decent one, too. There’s a set-piece train robbery to end the first act, another robbery after that, a stagecoach fight (of sorts), a face off with bandits, a riverboat/saloon, an amoral guy who ‘runs things around these parts’ (so to speak, that isn’t actual dialogue), a card game or two, as well as double, triple and quadruple crosses.

If ‘Space Western’ was the two-word pitch for this movie, Lawrence Kasdan – the man credited with the screenplay for Empire and Jedi, co-writer of The Force Awakens, as well as the writer of Silverado (1985) and Wyatt Earp (1994) – and his son, Jonathan, can certainly be said to have delivered on it. Rather than the brooding kind of western we’d perhaps expect from them, however, the Kasdans have delivered a hoot of a movie in the same way that Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger was if you gave it a chance (few did). But, frankly, I’ll take Chewie over Johnny Depp with a crow on his head nine-times-outta-ten.

I had feared the worse for Solo, to be honest, so its proficiency is almost a relief after the disjointed back-loading of last year’s Rogue One. It certainly could have been a lot worse.

Having jettisoned Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie) from their directors’ chairs mid-way through production, apparently after spats over their laissez-faire attitude to the film’s script, the film was handed to mitts the phrase ‘safe pair of hands’ was probably invented for: Ron Howard.

Like much of Howard’s ouevre, Solo is a good movie without every really threatening to become a great one. It is functional, but there’s no striking moment that will force its way into the hearts of Star Wars‘ more discerning fans. Unlike the fourth star of this film, the Falcon, Solo simply doesn’t have it where it counts.

Ultimately, for all its skilful execution, and the rounded-off edges Howard appears to have bought to the final cut, while Disney remains on the path it has set for the Star Wars Story franchise, the films will remain neither fish nor flesh. Like Rogue One, Solo struggles to find enough to do with what we already know about Star Wars to shift or expand our understanding of it – but nor does it spare enough limelight to promote a new character or concept to the status needed to really mean anything.

The focus here is squarely on the quartet we already know, and theirs is a character boat that simply can’t be rocked too hard. Having come away after 2 1/4 hrs of movie feeling like the best arc of the whole affair was awarded to a modified YT-1300 Corellian light freighter, I hope you’ll forgive me for concluding that Solo is light on substance.

You would struggle, I’d suggest, to come up with one thing about Han, Lando or Chewie’s characters that you didn’t already know, or at least couldn’t infer from the performances of the people who played these characters previously. Actually, scratch that, there was one moment: an uncharacteristically smutty and distinctly un-Star Wars-like allusion to a certain part of the Calrissian anatomy, that I suspect is an example of the tone Ron Howard was parachuted in to the director’s chair to expunge.

Ultimately, both plot and character development here are hamstrung by the simple fact that the outcomes are already known, so creating jeopardy and stakes relies on you caring about the new faces – which, the film never really gives you time to do. Like a rollercoaster, it goes up and down and round and round, but ultimately, you are never in doubt about where you’re going to get off. Everyone plays their part, and every thrill and spill is expertly delivered, you can enjoy it… but it’s little more than a brief adrenalin jolt.

Thus, here we have another prequel in all but name. It skirts around the known chain of events, obsessed with its legacy star as opposed to striking out into the wider universe and making a name for itself. Solo – subtitle or no – is still, ultimately, part of the larger Skywalker story, albeit an adjunct. At no point does this feel like a story we needed – in the same way as Disney is yet to convince me that A Star Wars Story is a franchise that needs to exist, beyond a need to bolster profit margins. The two movies it has produced so far are stuck in a strange hinterland: unable to do anything interesting with established characters, yet unwilling to give new a character unfettered access to the spotlight to establish themselves as equals.

Happily, unlike Rogue One, Solo – largely due to its inherent quota of OT characters – doesn’t end up faltering under the need to spatula in too many easter eggs and references. It does go there (in its own way), but the impact is nothing like the obliterating effect of the last 10 minutes of its predecessor. For that reason, and some others, it is a better watch – and, again, I repeat: a lot of fun. It’s also funny, for the large part.

I’m am glad, however, we’re going to get a fallow year before we’re served more Star Wars. It’s definitely time for Disney to take a moment and decide what it wants, before turning its attention to Kenobi, Solo 2 (yes, Han, Chewie and Lando survive – I don’t think that counts as a spoiler), or whatever comes next for this side-project. Frankly, I hope it offers up something with a bit more style and substance.