“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY”
In the summer of 1977, Ron Howard made his directorial debut with “Grand Theft Auto,” a merrily destructive low-budget fairy tale that found its way into a lot of newly twinned multiplexes that summer of ‘77.
Audiences liked Howard. An entire generation grew up with the guy, best known as Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show,” in the 1960s. By the early ’70s Howard starred in “Happy Days,” which owed a huge debt to “American Graffiti” (1973), the smash co-starring Howard and directed by a relative newcomer named George Lucas.
That summer of ‘77 also gave the world “Star Wars.” Lucas couldn’t get the rights for a “Flash Gordon” remake, so he cooked up a variation. “Star Wars” spawned sequel after sequel after sequel, and then started spinning off stand-alone pictures.
And now, Howard has entered the “Star Wars” universe with “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” opening May 24.
Midshoot, the Hollywood veteran, whose directorial career has proved hardy enough to handle a few flubs alongside a few hits, replaced directors Chris Lord and Phil Miller, whose penchant for improvisation didn’t go down well with the franchise overlords. The switch worked. Howard’s style has the virtue of being malleable, suiting the needs of the movie at hand. I liked this one. It’s a solid, well-carpentered origin story. “New,” it’s not. The goal was “same but different.”
Son-father screenwriters Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan answer a series of questions while poking around new corners of the Lucas universe. How did Han Solo meet Chewbacca? We find out in clever, exciting fashion. (Despite the airy brightness of the film’s poster, the film is most striking when cinematographer Bradford Young and production designer Neil Lamont venture into the smoky, hazy, grungy underbelly of the underworlds.)
What was Han’s life before he became a rogue-for-hire at the helm of the freighter known as the Millennium Falcon? We spend some time in the prologue running with Han on the mean streets of Corellia, ruled by gangland factions in the time of the Galactic Civil War. How did Han and Lando Calrissian (a sprightly Donald Glover), gambler and scoundrel, come to know each other? We get that as well.
The Kasdans — Lawrence worked on three previous “Star Wars” scripts — wield those narrative questions like arrows declaring, “This way to the next chase scene!”
The best of the chases arrives fairly early, and involves a speeding train, a mountainous pass, various blasters and Thandie Newton (as freedom fighter Val), working with Woody Harrelson (as Beckett, Han’s mentor, a practical man to the core). There’s a downside to any “Star Wars” movie so intent on not boring us that it risks numbing our senses with cliffhanger atop cliffhanger. But Howard gives this one enough breathing room to set us up for the next tentacled space beast, or the latest betrayal.
The previous stand-alone “Star Wars” movie, “Rogue One” (2016), used the tropes and tensions of the combat picture genre. “Solo” tries on a different genre — when it’s pausing between chases, it’s a full-on gangster movie. Note: Paul Bettany makes for a shrewd, ruthless kingpin, whose eyes glow red when provoked.
At times, working with a small army of digital wizards, Howard seems to be channeling the spirit of the car-crash pileups of “Grand Theft Auto.” Only this time, the vehicles really move.
Now: How’s Han? Alden Ehrenreich resembles a young, somewhat graver Robert Wagner, though he’s a better actor than the young Robert Wagner was. Ehrenreich’s contained, methodical brand of swagger matches up pretty well with the Han Solo we know from the ‘77-‘83 Harrison Ford edition.
As Han’s morally compromised love interest, Q’ira, Emilia Clarke earns her paycheck almost immediately when Han mentions a stolen spacecraft and, with a delighted purr, she asks: “Why? Are we going somewhere?” Howard seems particularly attuned to these humanizing details, even if he can’t do anything about the general treatment of the movie’s female characters. (I’ve said enough.)
Also there’s a new droid, a winning know-it-all voiced brilliantly by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She/it is probably the best “same but different” flourish in all of “Solo,” reminiscent of droids past, inevitably, but very much welcome.
Ehrenreich’s signed up for two more “Solo” movies, should the grosses cooperate. They’ll probably cooperate. As sure as the taillights on one of the gliders in the first big chase resemble the Ford Galaxie 500 from the rear, Howard’s efficient, confident, slightly square direction does the job. It’s his best film in a decade.