Any movie bearing the “Star Wars” label — like “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which presents the origins of one of the franchise’s favorite characters — is a sure thing at the box office, but it faces long odds in pleasing the legions of fans who will pick apart details like a Wookiee tearing into his lunch.
As Harrison Ford’s rogue pilot once said, never tell him the odds.
Thanks to a charismatic cast and the sure-footed direction of Hollywood veteran Ron Howard, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” works both on its own merits as an exciting action spectacle and as an origin story for the franchise’s favorite scoundrel.
Howard introduces us to a young Han (played by Alden Ehrenreich) who’s more idealistic and innocent than the one we first met in a Mos Eisley cantina. On his home planet of Corellia, Han is a street rat, committing petty crimes in the service of a local crime boss, Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). His dream is to make enough credits to get off Corellia with his girlfriend and partner in crime, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke).
Flash-forward a few years, and Han has joined a crew — led by the eternally cynical Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) — trying to pull off a daring heist, the proceeds of which will satisfy a debt owed to a high-living gangster, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).
It seems unnecessary to report that the script — written by old pro Lawrence Kasdan, whose credits span from “The Empire Strikes Back” to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and his son Jonathan — shows us how Han first encounters the major people and items in the character’s established lore. The movie shows us Han’s first meetings with his furry sidekick, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and the dashing gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the procurement of his first blaster, and his first flight in the Millennium Falcon.
But this name-dropping isn’t mere fan service, a prologue to set up the Solo legend (like River Phoenix’s turn as a young Indy in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”), but melded into a rousing, fast-paced adventure. The action sequences, whether on the ground or in the stars, are energetic and tightly focused, laced with some good humor provided by Lando’s android first mate, L3-37 (performed by the British comedian/writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge).
Howard famously took over as director midway into production, from the “21 Jump Street” team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who kept their executive-producer credits), and reportedly re-shot 70 percent of the movie. If so, the seams never show, and Howard’s movement through the story and his juggling of the many characters are fluid and propulsive.
Amid a strong cast that includes Thandie Newton and Jon Favreau, the standout is Glover, who perfectly channels the suave confidence Billy Dee Williams brought to the character in “The Empire Strikes Back.” As for Ehrenreich, taking on the impossible task of filling Ford’s boots, the young actor (previously known for the Coen brothers’ Hollywood comedy “Hail Caesar!”) takes a little while to find his groove, but he eventually shows the swagger we recognize in our scruffy-looking hero.
It’s important to note that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is the first entry in this franchise to make no mention of The Force. Han was never much for hokey religions and ancient weapons, so it’s fitting that his movie ditches the mysticism for old-fashioned whiz-bang action.
★★★½<br>Solo: A Star Wars Story<br>The origins of the Rebellion’s most daring antihero come together in an action-packed adventure.<br>Where • Theaters everywhere.<br>When • Opens Friday, May 25.<br>Rating • PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.<br>Running time • 135 minutes.