Epic film redux ‘a rambling, rollicking space opera’

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Original Han Solo, Harrison Ford, teams up with the new, Alden Ehrenreich

Millennium Falcon picks Tempe for a comeback landing

Tempe Marketplace was an unlikely landing site last week for the Millennium Falcon. That is to say, it was the site of a screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story, which opens May 25. Fair warning: I’ll try to keep what follows free of significant “spoilers,” but if you want to go in with no foreknowledge whatsoever, stop reading now.

OK, so for those still reading…This one, set years before the events of the original 1977 Star Wars, is an origin story for dashing pilot Han Solo, played back then by Harrison Ford, and arguably the best-loved character in the franchise.

When we meet Han, played here by young Alden Ehrenreich, he’s a runaway who has fallen into a Dickensian life of street crime on a dreary industrial planet, in servitude to a sort of giant tomato worm (with beautiful diction).

He escapes, albeit at a painful price, and we’re shown his first meetings with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his beloved spaceship the Millennium Falcon.

Han and Chewie fall in with a gang of space bandits including Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton and a little multi-armed dude voiced by Jon Favreau, who are working for odious crime boss Paul Bettany and his beautiful consigliere Emilia Clarke.

The gang, along with Lando and a revolutionary minded robot (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) end up on another crazy, daring exploit.

As an audience member, I may be in an unusually fortunate position where Star Wars is concerned. I’ve always liked Star Wars, liked it a lot, really, but it was never the gold standard of entertainment for me.

Probably because I came to it as a teenager rather than as a child, I never had the emotional investment in the franchise that so many in the generation after me did (and that I have in, say, Star Trek), so I cantake pleasure in the movies on their own merits, and if something feels a little off to me, it doesn’t seem like a desecration.

Within that context, I found Solo very authentic and enjoyed it thoroughly. The credited director is Ron Howard, who reportedly took over late in the shoot, after the directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired (they’re credited as executive producers).

Whoever’s work predominates in the finished product, it has that inimitable Star Wars feel, with one possible exception: It’s a bit dark, in the literal sense, especially early on.

To emphasize the grittiness of Han’s background, the initial planets we visit are on the gray, overcast or even downright murky side.

While this is appropriate enough to the story, the loss of some of the color and visual vibrancy we expect from a Star Wars movie mutes the effect a bit.

But that’s about as much of a criticism as I can muster.

Solo is a rambling, rollicking space opera, with all the chases and dogfights and shoot-outs and monsters and double-crosses and noble sacrifices one could wish for, supported by a truly engaging cast.

Ehrenreich, who jumped off the screen a couple of years ago as the young cowboy star in the Coen Brothers’ comedy Hail, Caesar!, is even better here as the cocksure but likable Han.

He has a no-kidding movie star’s face, and dare I say it, I thought he came across here as less aloof, more openhearted than the young Harrison Ford did in the original film (Ford grew much warmer as an actor as he matured).

Ehrenreich and Suotamo, the Finnish basketball player who takes over the role of Chewbacca from Peter Mayhew, generate an easy and touching rapport from their first scene together.

Glover channels the suavity of Billy Dee Williams as Lando, and adds a welcome touch of comic vanity and youthful overconfidence. Clarke has the English hothouse-flower charm that seems to recur so often among the leading ladies in the series in recent years, Bettany’s bad guy has an unctuousness that’s very easy to hate, and the brash line readings of Waller-Bridge are quite amusing.

Best of all among the supporting cast, though, is Harrelson as the wearily cynical leader of the bandits: In the midst of all this Buck Rogers silliness, he manages to create a complex character.

Part of the credit for this must go to the dialogue, by the father-and-son team of Lawerence and Jonathan Kasdan, with its touches of humane antiauthoritarian idealism, little riffs on loyalty and selflessness that pop up here and there as if smuggled in.

If the movie was made in the ‘50s, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the script was the work of some blacklisted writer, working through a front.

Plays Valley-wide starting Friday, May 25.

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