If the irksome details were cut out, Solo would resemble any of a number of superhero origin stories. Young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is stuck in indentured servitude when we first meet him, scrounging parts for a crime boss in exchange for continued existence. He and childhood friend Q’ira (Emilia Clarke) plot a big escape, but she’s arrested in the attempt by the Empire. While Han successfully gets off his home planet, he has little choice but to join the Imperial Army, not as the pilot he dreams of being but as an undifferentiated foot soldier. Possessing no loyalty to the Empire, Han deserts to fall in with smuggler Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his crew, who are in turn obligated to crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Han chafes under any and all orders, grasping for ways to get himself and sidekick Chewbacca out from under their various bosses and go into business for himself. When Q’ira reemerges as Vos’ trusted companion, Han has to devise a way to convince her to join him on his quest for galactic personal independence.
Solo isn’t scrimping on its cast with pros like Harrelson, Bettany, and Beckett’s underseen lover played by Thandie Newton. With a complement of up-and-comers like Ehrenreich, so magnificent in Hail Caesar, Clarke, and Donald Glover as the suave Lando Calrissian, all involved have notable successes on their resume. With the exception of Newton and Glover luxuriating in his alpha-dork schtick, no one makes much of an impression. Ehrenreich and Clarke are serviceable at best, and Harrelson and Bettany are coasting through another of their big-budget, one-for-them roles. The film is as aloof as Lando wants to be, but Ron Howard is no master of cool like a Tarantino or a Jarmusch, and every performance (Newton excepted) is more affectation than true manner. This might be the point, but it’s neither endearing nor engaging when the characters all come off as insecure.
To Solo’s credit, it puts its bland characters through plenty of action. Setpiece upon setpiece fills the screen, pushing the film ever forward. Han and Q’ira’s dimly lit escape in the opening leads into ill-fated train heists and droid rebellions and, as the film must adapt an entire scene based on a single line of dialogue, Kessel runs. Solo is freed from the heavy drama of Episodes VII and VIII and Rogue One, by far the lightest of any Disney Star Wars entry. The ever-competent Howard can make a decent swashbuckler adventure film, but this could’ve been so much more. His Solo does indeed shoot first, but at center mass from close range. It’s not an impressive shot to land. C