For a movie that was fraught with so many well-publicized production problems – including the replacement during production of its original directors, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, with Ron Howard – “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a pretty smooth piece of entertainment. It’s overlong, of course – has there ever been a franchise movie that wasn’t? – but Howard, who gets sole director credit, and his screenwriters, Lawrence Kasdan and Jonathan Kasdan, keep things thrumming along cliffhanger-style for most of its two-plus hours.
Still, I’m not sure that this origin story about Han Solo, played here with bland vim by Alden Ehrenreich, has any reason for being except as yet another moola machine. We find out how Han got his surname; how he first met and teamed up with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo); how he won the Millennium Falcon in a card game from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who is pansexual. (Apparently he had a thing for a female droid and seems vaguely smitten by Han.) We learn about Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han’s first love, with whom, as the film begins, he attempts to flee his brackish home planet of Corellia. We meet Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, marvelous as always), Han’s fellow smuggler initially masquerading as an Empire soldier. He’s the kind of guy who is always warning everyone not to trust anyone. In other words, he’s a walking spoiler alert. Paul Bettany, dripping with fine-tuned malice, shows up as the head of the crime syndicate Crimson Dawn, although he seems more like a Bond villain.
It takes a while before it sinks in that all this rogues' gallery-studded exposition is essentially the plot, which has something to do with stealing a shipment of the hyper fuel Coaxium. Double- and triple-crosses abound.
The filmmakers don’t indulge in a lot of deep-dish character stuff because they recognize, probably wisely, that audiences are here for the action, not the heartstrings. They also dispense with much of the mythological hoo-ha that tends to fatten the “Star Wars” ecosystem. Of all the “Star Wars”-themed movies, this one is the closest to a Saturday afternoon serial/western. Don’t expect more than that. But it could have been less. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence.)