It might have been when L3-37 (Phoebe Waller Bridge), a bowlegged female droid with a plummy British accent, started lecturing a fellow robot about droid rights and sentience; or when a card-playing, smooth-talking Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) purred that "everything you've heard about me is true"; or, most likely, when Han (Alden Ehrenreich) walks in on love interest Qi'Ra (Emilia Clarke) modelling one of Lando's many colourful silk capes in a Millenium Falcon closet. But I do know that at some point in Solo: A Star Wars Story, I realised that this movie was pure, joyous fun.
It's a polar opposite vibe from 2016's Rogue One, the first instalment in the Star Wars Anthology, which followed Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her band of rebels on their tragic suicide mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, and it's just what the franchise has been missing.
With everything that's at stake in the Star Wars universe (the fate of the galaxy, an outmatched struggle against a tyrannical and totalitarian military regime hell-bent on dominating everything in its path, the quest to revive a mystical order of knights), it can be easy to forget that, at its core, it's a grand, sweeping adventure about a bunch of people, aliens, and robots living in space. It's always been a little goofy, and yet sincere. (In fact, the main problem with George Lucas' prequels is that they started to take themselves much too seriously.) Solo leans into that rollicking atmosphere, making no illusions about the fact that this is a heist caper/origin story about one of pop culture's most arrogant, stubborn, lovable bad boys.
When we first meet Han (he gets his full name later in the film, though I won't spoil how), he's a scrappy two-bit gangster living on the streets of Corellia, and working for a crime boss named Lady Proxima. As a (non-scrolling) text prologue informs us at the beginning of the film, crime syndicates have emerged as the ruling class in territories not yet controlled by the Empire. The prime currency is hyperfuel, otherwise known as coaxium, the refined silvery blue liquid which enables spaceships to get where they're going. One vial of this priceless resource is meant to be Han's ticket out of the life. He has dreams: become a pilot, buy a ship, and cruise the galaxy along with his beautiful girlfriend Qi'Ra. Of course, things don't work out quite that smoothly. After a stint in the Imperial Army is cut short by his inability to follow orders, Han ends up tagging along with a group of bandits led by outlaw Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) trying to make a big hyperfuel score. And thus, the smuggler is born.
Along the way, we see the origin of the many elements that make up Han's legend: the Kessel Run he made under 12 parsecs; his meeting with Chewbacca; how he won his beloved Millenium Falcon (then still shiny and new). And like Han himself, all these stories are larger than life, a kernel of sincerity blown up to its most bombastic iteration — a trait which would be ridiculous if it wasn't so damn charming.
Ehrenreich is perfectly cast, no small feat when you're dealing with such a well-known entity. He embodies Han without every trying to impersonate Harrison Ford, which is good because no one can. He also manages to deliver goofy lines without compromising charisma, even when sharing the screen with Glover. And oh, man; let's talk about Glover. From the moment the first stills were released, showing him ensconced in a black fur cape, it was clear that Lando was going to steal the show. Glover's performance, like Ehrenreich's, borrows from the character that Billy Dee Williams made his own back in 1979, but takes it one step further, pulling off a turn that is suave bordering on the absurd, but tempered with an emotional core that prevents the whole thing from veering into parody. (At one point, he is literally wearing two capes, and what's more, he pulls it off.) Still, the real scene stealer here is Waller-Bridge's L3, whose crusade to liberate her kind is both laugh out loud funny, and a sobering injection of woke 2018 reality that reminds us that even the good guys exploit their subordinates.
It's unfortunate that the only woman with a real, meaty part comes in the form of scrap metal, especially in light of the recent advances made in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Clarke's Qi'Ra, who works for a crime syndicate called Crimson Dawn, led by dashing villain Dryson Vos (Paul Bettany), mostly exists to teach Han a lesson in heartbreak, and Thandie Newton, the first woman of colour cast in a prominent — human — role in Star Wars (Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata falls into the alien camp), gets far less screen time than she deserves.
Nevertheless, the overall result is surprisingly solid, especially given the rumours swirling around production mishaps during the film's rocky road to cinemas. The reshoots ordered by Ron Howard — who was brought in to direct after Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired from the project — reportedly make up 70% of the film, so it's decidedly his vision, and far more in line with the Star Wars ethos than it was originally conceived to be. Veteran Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan partnered with his son Jonathan on the script, which teeters smoothly back and forth between witty banter and more emotional gravitas, and though the film starts off a little clunky and heavy-handed, it finds its way quickly enough. What's more, the action sequences that so often bog down the narrative in films like this are expertly choreographed, making them a true delight to watch.
And for once, that's okay because the stakes are relatively low. There's no Death Star to blow up, no fight to save the whole of humanity — just a gang of misfits trying to make a buck and not die in the process. It's a refreshing look at how ordinary people were getting by under the yolk of the Empire, without lightsabers or the Force to help them in a tight spot. Is it the best Star Wars movie? Definitely not. But neither does it claim to be. Think of Solo as you would its eponymous hero: a scruffy-looking, half-witted nerf-herder of a film that's not bad to look at, and oh-so devilishly fun.
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