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Monday, May 28, 2018

DAMN Good Movies -- SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY


I thought we were in trouble there for a second, but it's fine.  We're fine.

That's right, it's time once again for another of my movie takes, this time on Solo: A Star Wars Story, the latest in the Star Wars film series exploring the origin of Han Solo.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...I've got a good feeling about this.

With the first Star Wars Story anthology film Rogue One making over $1 billion worldwide, Walt Disney Studios and Lucasfilm were understandably ready to go forward with a second.  Before selling the Star Wars franchise to Disney, George Lucas was developing his "Young Han Solo Chronicles" project and hired veteran Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan for the screenplay.  While Kasdan left to help finish up the Star Wars: The Force Awakens script, his son Jonathan Kasdan took over until he was able to get back to it.  The LEGO Movie's Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were tapped to direct, and after finding new Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich after a reported search of over 3,000 people, the project was off and running.  All good, right?  Right?

In June 2017, Lucasfilm cited the old "creative differences" and parted ways with Lord and Miller, following reports of them encouraging too much improvisation from Kasdan's script and Lucasfilm not exactly feeling the footage they reviewed.  Ron Howard, who was directed by George Lucas in the 1973 movie American Graffiti, was brought in to take the reins and get things back on track.  The rumor of an acting coach being brought in for Aldenreich was later debunked, but Michael K. Williams, who had already been filmed as the movie's villain Dryden Vos, was replaced with Paul Bettany when Williams became unavailable for reshoots and the character being reworked from a motion-capture alien.  Star Wars fans and critics already skeptical about the need for a Han Solo movie trolled the production pretty hard by this point, leaving a big question about what Howard's end result would be.

The second Star Wars Story film begins missing the classic crawl once again, but this time,  it's replaced with some opening text that helps establish the setting better than in the start of Rogue One.  We're told that the galaxy is in a state of disorder (Thanks a lot,  @realEmperorPalpatine), with criminal syndicates competing for valuable resources such as hyperfuel.  We open on the shipbuilding world of Corellia, finally getting to see Han Solo's homeworld, where orphaned children are made to steal in order to survive.  

Our introduction to young Han (just Han at this point) and his girlfriend Qi'ra sets the movie's fast pace, with a landspeeder chase that ultimately leads them back into the clutches of a local criminal gang led by a snakelike alien named Lady Proxima.  Tramps like them, baby, they're born to run from Corellia, so they successfully bribe an Imperial officer who grants them passage on an outgoing transport.  Han makes it through the checkpoint gate, but Qi'ra is snagged by their pursuers before she can join him.  Now separated, Han vows to return for her, and with no means of income, he joins the Imperial Navy as a flight cadet, with the Imperial recruiting officer dubbing him "Han Solo" as a surname.

Three years later, we find out that Han was expelled from the Imperial Flight Academy for insubordination, and now serves as an infantryman during a battle on the planet Mimban. Seeing the senselessness of war, he's drawn to a gang of criminals posing as Imperial soldiers, led by Tobias Beckett and conisting of his wife Val and an annoying four-armed alien named Rio Durant.  He tries to blackmail the gang into allowing him to join, but Beckett instead has him arrested as a deserter and condemned to battle a "beast" held in captivity. The beast, of course, turns out to be the mighty Chewbacca and a friendship is born.  Thanks to Han's ability to speak enough Shyriiwook to communicate, the two stage a fight for the benefit of their captors and escape after collapsing their cell.  Strangely sympathetic, Beckett decides to rescue Han and Chewie, and enlists them for a planned train heist to steal a shipment of the hyperfuel coaxium on the planet Vandor.

In the movie's Second Act, an impressive train heist sequence continues the film's hyperpace (See what I did there?), with Han and Chewie getting some on-the-job training as they fend off Imperial guards protecting the shipment and a gang of marauders led by the masked Enfys Nest.  Tobias' pilot Rio is predictably killed off in the process, giving Han a chance to step up in the role, but rather disappointingly, so is Val.  The heist ends up going south, when Han, on the ship, gets into a tug of war with Enfys Nest and is forced to ditch the shipment.  Having lost his wife and his pilot, all for nothing, Beckett is understandably piiiiiiiissed.  He reveals he was ordered to steal the shipment for Dryden Vos, leader of the Crimson Dawn criminal syndicate, and now he's worried that Vos willing be coming for him.  Han and Chewie volunteer to help him steal another shipment as repayment, then travel to Vos' yacht where Han is stunned to find Qi'ra there as Vos' arm candy.  Oh, and it turns out she's a member of Crimson Dawn as well.  Han scrambles a bit, but comes up with a plan to steal unrefined coaxium from the mines on Kessel (Yes, the famous "Kessel Run" Kessel).  Vos, meanwhile, insists on Qi'ra accompanying them.

Looking for a fast ship to pull the heist, Qi'ra introduces Han and Chewie to Lando Calrissian, who is as egocentric in his youth as Han is impulsive.  Han challenges Lando to a game of sabacc, with the wager being Lando's ship, reputed to be the fastest in the galaxy.  Diehard Star Wars fans expect the game to end a certain way, but Lando actually wins by cheating.  Regardless, he still ends up joining the mission in exchange for a share of the profits.  The team boards his ship—you guessed it, the Millennium Falcon—and head for Kessel.  After reaching the planet and infiltrating the mine, Lando's equal rights crusader/co-pilot droid L3-37 gives them a small distraction by causing a mass revolt from other droids and enslaved Wookiees.  They use the chaos to steal a consignment of unprocessed, volatile coaxium, but L3 gets severely damaged and Lando is injured during the escape.  At long last, Han gets to pilot the Falcon, knowing that they need to make a "Kessel Run" in less than twenty parsecs to reach a processing station before the coaxium explodes.  Things naturally go sideways when an Imperial blockade shows up to complicate things, but Han proves he's a hell of a pilot that would make Poe Dameron proud.  They rendezvous with Vos on the planet Savareen, although the Falcon ends up considerably dinged during the run.

As we head into the Third Act, things take on more of a space Western vibe.  Vos surprises the team by announcing that the coaxium is fake and that Beckett betrayed them, to the surprise of no one actually paying attention.   Beckett ratted to Vos about Han's plan to give the real shipment to the Cloud Riders, the group led by Enfys Nest who turn out to be rebels.  However, in a nice turnaround, Han mentions he anticipated Beckett's shady move and the coaxium they're holding is real.  Beckett takes Chewbacca hostage (somehow) and takes off with the coaxium, leading to a gunfight between Han, Qi'ra and Vos that ends up with Qi'ra killing Vos.  She urges Han to help the Cloud Riders and tells him she'll join him shortly, only to seal the room and look all ominous after Han leaves.

Han catches up with Beckett and Chewbacca and in welcome moment, he shoots first and kills Beckett.  Han and Chewbacca turn over the coaxium to Enfys Nest, who reveals her plans to use the fuel to aid the rebellion against the Empire.  She offers Han the chance to join her but he passes, leaving Enfys Nest to suggest that some day he might feel more sympathetic to the rebels because foreshadowing.  

The movie's one real surprise moment happens when Qi'ra contacts her superior, who unexpectedly turns out to be Darth Maul, with the presumption that everyone watched the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series.  She informs Maul of the mission's failure and assumes Vos' position, because apparently, being a Khaleesi isn't enough.  Meanwhile, to check off one last important box, Han and Chewie track down Lando at another sabacc game and Han challenges him once again or ownership of the Falcon.  Now hip to Lando's tricksy ways, though, Han relieves Lando of the cards hidden in his sleeve and wins the second game.  As the new captain of the Millennium Falcon, Han tells Chewie his plan is to go to Tatooine, where Beckett mentioned a "gangster" who's putting an organization together.  Hope you like having a price on your head, Han...

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed?  Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...

HAN SOLO -- Let's face it, Alden Ehrenreich was in a no-win scenario taking over for Harrison Ford.  Either he doesn't act enough like Ford to satisfy fans of the character or he doesn't make the role his own, like Roger Moore did taking over from Sean Connery as James Bond.  He does well enough here, bringing Han's cocky attitude in all the right moments, but he doesn't seem as confident in the role as Ford did.

CHEWBACCA -- After fully assuming the role of Chewie in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Joonas Suotamo finally gets to do something more with the character than just being annoyed by Porgs.  He gets to throw down with Han in a mud pit during their first encounter, helps Han during the train heist, and even gets to liberate some of his fellow Wookiees.  As always, Chewie steals every scene he's in and it was great to see him get so much screen time here.

TOBIAS BECKETT -- Woody Harrelson takes on the role of Han's mentor in crime, showing us what Han probably would've turned out like had he never met Leia and joined the Rebellion.  We get a small taste of his relationship with Val, but she's killed off far too soon for it to matter.  It was a little disappointing to see him turn on Han at the end so easily, but unlike George Lucas, at least Beckett respects Han for shooting first.

QI'RA -- Fresh from Westeros, Emilia Clarke plays Han's lover from Corellia, whose life diverges considerably from his.  She's essentially the femme fatale here, the character you know is nothing but bad news for the hero, who can't help but be romantically attracted to her.  We learn Qi'ra is under Dryden Vos' thumb, so we're glad to see her take him out until we quickly find out she did it as a power move to work more closely with Darth Maul.

LANDO CALRISSIAN -- Taking over from Billy Dee Williams, Donald Glover also had to live up to portraying a classic Star Wars character.  Unlike Ehrenreich, though, Glover seems far more comfortable doing so and comes off enjoying himself as Lando.  Glover doesn't have Williams' natural smooth charm, but he definitely depicts Lando's egocentrism and occasional shallowness.  Regardless, Lando's strong desire to rescue L3-37 was surprising, and now I want to know more of why Lando felt so much over a droid.

DRYDEN VOS -- As mentioned above, Paul Bettany took over from Michael K. Williams as the film's villain and I think the decision to make Vos humanoid was a good one.  Bettany is solid at this type of role, and displays his power over Qi'ra while also being quietly menacing in social settings as if he were a James Bond villain.  Ultimately, he ends up underestimating Qi'ra's ambition, or overestimating his power over her, which leads to his downfall.

L3-37 -- Phoebe Waller-Bridge is Star Wars' first major female droid character, a self-made droid that given the personality of an equal rights crusader.  L3 gets a strange but fun scene with Qi'ra talking about the ability of droids to have physical relationships with humans, but her big moment is obviously when she creates a "distraction" in the coaxium mines on Kessel that quickly turns into a full-fledged uprising.  And even though L3 is destroyed, it's somehow comforting to know she lives on as the Falcon's navigational system.

VAL -- Taking a break from HBO's Westworld, Thandie Newton turns up as Val, Beckett's lover and fellow scoundrel.  We don't really learn that much about Val, apart from her being a no-nonsense type that's great with a blaster rifle.  And because Val is such a underdeveloped character, her death scene during the train heist only causes the barest of shrugs.  

RIO DURANT -- Jon Favreau voices a four-armed Ardennian pilot named Rio, who was so obviously expendable you expected him to have the word "expendable" tattooed onto his forehead.  As Beckett's first pilot, Rio's character tries way too hard to be funny and comes off more annoying than anything else.

DARTH MAUL CAMEO -- Ray Park (with Sam Witwer providing the voice) returns as Maul, who's revealed to be the Big Bad that Dryden Vos, the public leader of the crime syndicate Crimson Dawn, answers to.  We don't get an explanation of how Maul survived the end of The Phantom Menace or how he's suddenly rocking a replacement bottom half, so you'll have to research that on your own.  In this cameo scene, Maul commands Qi'ra to meet with him on Dathomir and warns her they'll work more closely from now on, igniting his lightsaber.  To be continued...?

All in all, Solo: A Star Wars Story is better than a lot of us were dreading.  It's a fun, fast-paced ride that often feels more like a space Western than a heist movie, revealing the promised backstory of Han Solo with some old friends and new characters along the way.  It's a credit to Ron Howard that he could step in over two-thirds into production and pull things together into a decent, entertaining movie, but I have to think there was some lost potential here.  Solo ends in a such a way to hint at more with Han Solo, Qi'ra and Darth Maul, and Ehrenreich was reportedly signed for three films should they choose to do a sequel, but with an underperforming opening weekend, I honestly don't know if that's going to happen.  But hey, never tell Han Solo the odds.

And for those who may be wondering, here's my personal ranking of the Star Wars films:

1. Star Wars (1977)
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
4. Return of the Jedi (1983)
5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
7. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
8. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
9. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
10. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

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