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Front Page - Friday, June 1, 2018

Relax, Star Wars geeks, and enjoy Solo’s backstory

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Han, Luke and Leia stood tall against an evil galactic empire and blew up not one but two Death Stars. These and other adventures are chronicled in “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”

A little longer ago, in the same galaxy, Han and Chewbacca had a few adventures of their own, none of which involved blowing up a planet-pulverizing space weapon. These are chronicled in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which is new in theaters.

One of the beautiful things about the original “Star Wars” trilogy is how George Lucas weaved the backstory of each character into the larger narrative. A lot happened before the Star Destroyer descended on the Tantive IV in the opening frames of “A New Hope,” and over the course of three films, we learned who these characters were, where they had been and how they all were tied to a single destiny.

The subtle exposition of these films sparked my imagination. When Luke learned in “A New Hope” that Obi-Wan Kenobi had fought in the Clone Wars, my head was filled with visions of epic space battles. When I learned that Vader was Luke’s father, I marveled at how it could be.

Then Lucas decided to show us the Clone Wars and how Anakin Skywalker become Vader, and even went as far as explaining away The Force, and “Star Wars” lost some of its magic.

So, when Disney announced it was developing a movie about a young Han Solo, the needle on my excitement meter, which usually hits the red zone the moment I hear about a new “Star Wars” film, barely twitched.

As comedian Patton Oswalt says in his (hilarious) routine titled “At midnight, I will kill George Lucas with a shovel,” “I don’t ... [care] where the stuff I love comes from, I just love the stuff I love!”

I didn’t need to know how Han came to own the Millennium Falcon or why Chewie tags along on all his adventures; knowing he was a cynical smuggler and a selfish SOB before a princess and a rebellion softened his heart was enough.

While I realize no one was holding a blaster pistol to my head and forcing me to watch “Solo,” I still had to see the film. And you know what? It’s not bad.

Some of the stuff at the beginning made me cringe. When we meet Han, he’s not a cynical smuggler or a selfish SOB but an optimistic, arrogant young man trying to escape the clutches of a local gang and sneak off a ship-building planet.

“Solo” was co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, who has a lifetime pass from me for penning “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” so I was surprised by how awkward the first part of the film is as Han receives his last name (eye roll), meets Chewbacca (eye roll) and is given his iconic pistol (eye roll).

Once Han hooks up with the main storyline, things get better, and they continue to improve as the film progresses. Strong points include Alden Ehrenreich’s performance as Han Solo, Donald Glover’s turn as Lando Calrissian and the action.

Ehrenreich faced an impossible task slipping into an iconic role made famous by Harrison Ford, but he pulled it off better than I thought he would. While certain aspects of his performance mimic Ford’s take on the character, he has enough charisma to make the role his own, at least within the confines of this film.

Ehrenreich also seems to be enjoying himself, which is good to see. A nervous, uncertain, stressed-out Solo would have ruined this film. Instead, his comfort helped me to make the transition to him being Solo.

While Ehrenreich merely held his own, Glover owns the screen whenever he appears. From his voice, to his mannerisms, to the way he projects Lando’s unique blend of ego and charm, he summons the spirit of Billy Dee Williams like a skilled medium.

Glover also added something intangible to the character. Maybe it’s the times we’re living in, but I never thought of Lando as sexually flexible. Glover, however, gives off this vibe.

Getting the performances right was key to the success of “Solo,” but this is a “Star Wars” film, so audiences expect good action, and they get it.

A heist that takes place on a rotating cargo train suspended on a rail that winds along the wall of a canyon sets the bar high early on and is nearly matched by sequences later in the film, including, yes, Solo’s record-breaking Kessel Run (eye roll).

“Solo” also has something sorely missing from “The Last Jedi”: humor that works. Much of it is centered on a sassy and agile new droid, L3-37, who functions as Lando’s navigator and is under the impression that her owner has the hots for her.

When you put all this together, “Solo” amounts to a good, inconsequential time. Kasdan ties the storyline into the main cannon in a few surprising but unnecessary ways and, at the end, Solo hasn’t yet become the cynical smuggler or selfish SOB he is when he appears in “A New Hope.” Perhaps Disney is hoping this film does well enough to warrant a sequel.

Either way, it’s a relief to see “Solo” works as well as it does given its troubled production history. When Ron Howard stepped in as director after Disney fired the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, for reportedly delivering footage that differed from what Disney wanted, I thought we’d get a clunky patchwork of scenes stitched together into a movie, but it flows well.

I just hope future character-based “Star Wars” films (Boba Fett and Obi-Wan are reportedly getting their own treatments) matter a little more.