The ascent of Han: Solo is a feisty Star Wars spin-off that will keep fans in orbit, says BRIAN VINER
Solo: A Star Wars Story (12A)
Verdict: Space-age heist movie
Verdict: A tall story
People keep popping up to admit they’ve never seen a Star Wars movie, with as much shame-faced embarrassment as they might confess that they’d never given a penny to charity.
The latest was British comedy actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who in Solo: A Star Wars Story plays a droid called L3-37.
Maybe that innocence informed her deliciously droll, positively scene-stealing performance. But it’s not only the cast who don’t necessarily need to be steeped in Star Wars lore; nor does the audience.
Alden Ehrenreich is the young Han Solo who has taken over the role from the trilogy star Harrison Ford
Clearly, it’s useful to know the story if you’re to fully enjoy the back-story, but it’s not essential.
As in the case of Waller-Bridge, a little ignorance might even help. Alden Ehrenreich is perfectly serviceable as the young Han Solo, and looks the part, but never quite reproduces the enigmatic charisma that Harrison Ford brought to the role.
Ron Howard’s film begins on the near- lawless planet of Corellia, where Han (yet to be anointed with the surname Solo) is a charming scoundrel, a sci-fi Artful Dodger, running inoffensive scams with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke).
When they get into a scrape with the authorities, they are forced to scarper.
Moreover, Han also wants to become a pilot, ‘the best in the galaxy’. The Star Wars faithful know he will achieve this, of course.
But to do so, he needs to get off Corellia, where opportunities for self-advancement are limited. In the act of escaping, he and Qi’ra are separated.
A few years pass. Han has now acquired the Solo — another nice expository flourish from father-and-son writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan.
But he has been booted out of pilot school for insubordination and has wound up as a humble foot-soldier.
Then he meets Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a jaded mercenary even more rascally and cynical than he is. ‘Assume everyone will betray you and you will never be disappointed,’ is Beckett’s sage advice.
Together with his companion Val (not much of a part for Thandie Newton), Beckett overcomes his initial mistrust of Han, and makes him his protégé in an exciting heist.
The target is a train, speeding through snowy mountains and loaded with the precious starship fuel Coaxium.
Character Han Solo – portrayed by Alden Ehrenreic – in spin-off film Solo: A Star Wars Story by Ron Howard
By now Han has another new associate, a huge, hairy Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk (are you keeping up, Phoebe Waller-Bridge?) called Chewbacca, again inhabited by Joonas Suotamo, the gigantic Finnish basketball player.
The Kasdans indulge us with a delightful origin story, worth the price of admission for all aficionados, explaining how Han and Chewie become pals.
Anyway, the raid goes wrong, which is a problem, because Beckett is on the payroll of a sinister inter-galactic gangster, Dryden Vos — played like all the very best Hollywood villains by an Englishman, in this case Paul Bettany.
The gang must somehow find another way to get Vos the Coaxium he needs. To make matters even more complicated, his inner circle now includes Han’s old squeeze Qi’ra.
On reflection, Solo: A Star Wars Story could quite easily cast off all the sci-fi trappings and still work as a simple heist movie. In a way, this is both its strength and its weakness.
It was a troubled production, from which the original co-directors were fired before Howard saved the day, reportedly because they wanted to take too many risks.
Howard doesn’t take any. The plot could hardly be simpler or more generic, and all the loose ends from previous movies are given tightly-tied beginnings here.
Fans of the original trilogy will particularly relish the introduction of a young Lando Calrissian (played with terrific swagger by Donald Glover), the first owner of Solo’s starship, the Millennium Falcon.
The nearest the film does come to taking a risk is that Calrissian appears to have a cross-species crush on his sidekick, Waller-Bridge’s sardonic droid.
As a whole, the film feels to me more functional than exhilarating, and definitely less of a blast than the last stand-alone movie, 2016’s Rogue One.
The action zips along predictably, and the special effects are as good as ever, but to mix franchises, it’s Star Wars, just not quite as we know it.
On the other hand, if you are one of those coming to it new, that shouldn’t matter one bit.
Edie is a very different kind of adventure, the story of an octogenarian English widow, the titular Edie (played by the formidable Sheila Hancock, who for all her immense acting ability, doesn’t quite convince as a vulnerable, rather lost old biddy).
Edie sets off for the Scottish Highlands after spending most of her adult life at home caring first for her daughter, then for her psychologically abusive husband, who ‘wasn’t the travelling kind’ even before he became ill.
On a whim, she decides to climb the mighty mountain Suilven, which might bring her closer to her beloved late father, a keen walker, from whom she was forced apart by her marriage.
So she takes the sleeper up to Inverness and there literally bumps into a young man who fortuitously happens to own an outward-bound store near her destination.
This is Jonny (Kevin Guthrie), who conquers his initial misgivings about Edie, even though they are entirely justified; vulnerable she might be, but she is also a truculent, whining curmudgeon.
Jonny offers to guide her up Suilven, initially as a scam to make some money out of the old misery.
Predictably enough, there ensues an odd-couple jaunt in which the pair end up imbibing valuable life lessons from each other — not to mention, on Edie’s part, a first-ever can of Strongbow cider.
It’s nicely acted, but desperately clunky in parts, with a series of implausible visual gags and ‘comic’ misadventures.
Would outward-boundy Jonny really not recognise a crab or be unable to operate a rowing-boat? Like much of Simon Hunter’s well-intentioned film, it doesn’t add up. But the scenery is glorious.
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