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Origin story 

'Solo' doesn't quite thread the needle.

click to enlarge A PORTRAIT OF THE PILOT AS A YOUNG MAN: Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo) and Joonas Suotamo (the Wookiee) star in the standalone "Solo: A Star Wars Story."
  • A PORTRAIT OF THE PILOT AS A YOUNG MAN: Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo) and Joonas Suotamo (the Wookiee) star in the standalone "Solo: A Star Wars Story."

Among the fun reveals in "Solo: A Star Wars Story," the standalone flick about that universe's most magnetic character, is that an Empire military recruiter gave Han Solo his name on the spot, Ellis Island-style. Han, then just a young orphan and fugitive, was escaping his crudhole home planet, staying a step ahead of the local law and chasing a dream of becoming a pilot. "Who are your people?" the stately recruiter says, the vague care in his voice softening his familiar dark uniform. Han says he has no one. So the recruiter gives him the poetic surname that always made Harrison Ford sound like he was going stag on an intergalactic mission ... to get rich, sure, and maybe save the day while he was at it.

That formula worked wonders: a ranking by the magazine Empire (no relation) tabbed Han as the No. 3 movie character of all time, a healthy lead over Luke (No. 50) and even Luke's dad (No. 9). We have a new Han now in Alden Ehrenreich, a 29-year-old Californian who managed to put together a tidy acting resume while remaining low-profile enough that he could step into such an iconic role sans baggage. To date, his finest on-screen moment likely was a meta behind-the-scenes moment on the Coen Brothers' old-school Hollywood comedy "Hail, Caesar!" that saw him as a cowboy-heartthrob named Hobie Doyle bumbling through a dramatic reading, with an exasperated director (played by Ralph Fiennes) desperately trying to guide him through. Ehrenreich was hilarious as a simple, starry-eyed kid hopelessly out of his depth. You really believed.

That scene kept replaying in my head as I tried to figure out why he wasn't quite holding up in "Solo." The short answer is, few performers in history have managed such swagger as circa-1980 Ford, and Ehrenreich has impossibly big shoes to fill. On top of that, the production of "Solo" was famously a mess, including a midstream director switch (to the perfectly capable Ron Howard). You've got to thread the needle here, making Solo more complex than he's ever been, revealing traumas and losses of his youth, while maintaining and evolving the signature arrogance that makes the character such a hoot. (To pull that off ... why, that would take the best pilot in the galaxy!)

If Ehrenreich suffers in the comparison (not quite funny enough and, paradoxically, also not enough of a jerk), then you might as well enjoy "Solo" for its strengths. This is still a romp fit for popcorn and Junior Mints on a summer's afternoon, bringing us a glimpse of Han's young crush Qi'ra (an inscrutable Emilia Clarke, making the most of the "Game of Thrones" pause), letting us meet Chewbacca for the first time (speaking a little Wookiee has perks for Han), and gracing us with Donald Glover as young Lando Calrissian. As a gambler and playboy and Millennium Falcon pilot and snake and all-around bon vivant whose greatest love in life may be his social justice-minded droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando feels like the #lifegoals for Han to emulate, and the movie picks up a pluck in its step when he's around.

We know the fates of Chewie and Lando well enough; the wild card in this episode is Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, a mercenary who serves as something of a mentor and foil for Han. Trying to reunite with Qi'ra and preening his way into a space-cowboy future that only he sees, Han has ambition without discipline. Beckett, as the weary small-timer hoping to nail one final score, offers a late-career glimpse of Han's best-case long-term trajectory (sans a Rebellion to give his life meaning). Machiavellian yet not without his soft spots, Beckett is a fun addition to this cartoon. The adventure might even continue with him, had not "Solo" wryly winked at a 40-year-old nerd debate and left no doubt as to whether Han shot first.

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