Who is Han Solo?
Han Solo is the first cinematic character I ever, well, “liked.” This is partially by circumstance, as I begged my parents to take me to see The Empire Strikes Back right before I turned six years old. Around the same time, there were a series of books out with titles like Han Solo at Stars’ End and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy. I devoured everything I could about this character even though those books really didn’t give us much insight on his past. They were set before the original Star Wars, but they weren’t an origin story – we just kind of followed Han and Chewbacca on some adventures before they ever met Luke Skywalker.
And then there were the Marvel comics, which didn’t feature Han (except for some flashbacks) for three whole years because of what happened to him in Empire. But I saved my allowance and bought a bunch of back issues and read about Han’s adventures fighting alongside a giant rabbit named Jaxxon. (It was a weird time.) But something was always missing from these adaptations.
In 1981, I finally saw Star Wars when the first movie was re-released into theaters. (What a weird thing that, after I saw Empire, I asked my parents “Can we see Star Wars now?” And the answer was, “No, because that’s impossible unless it’s put back in a theater,” which was a year later. Anyway.) But I fell in love with Han Solo all over again. He wanted no part of being the hero, but then comes around at the last minute and saves the day. He was cool. He was a smart aleck. He was funny, but in an unintentional kind of way.
Over the years I finally figured it out. The reason Han Solo worked so well (at least in the first two Star Wars movies) was because of Harrison Ford. Ford shares a lot of the same traits of Solo: he can be gruff, but his gruffness is also kind of hilarious. And Ford has a habit of coming up with some of the best moments himself, like the “I know” scene in The Empire Strikes Back and the swordsman scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. His “no bullshit” attitude is what makes Solo work. Harrison Ford was always the perfect person to play Solo: an actor who didn’t really want the gig that bad in the first place and thought the whole thing was stupid. At times in Star Wars, I can’t tell if it’s Ford acting or if it’s just his legitimate reaction to what’s going on around him. When C-3PO first introduces himself to Solo, Ford just kind of rolls his eyes and turns away. I like to think that’s just Ford wishing he were doing literally anything else at that moment other than sharing dialogue with a yellow robot.
In Empire, Ford gives a legitimately terrific performance. It’s obvious that Ford really liked what director Irvin Kershner was trying to do. And it was also very obvious Ford didn’t care at all for what was being done in Return of the Jedi. Then, after decades of shitting on Han Solo, Ford returns in The Force Awakens and seemed to be having a great time, other than for that whole broken leg part.
So this brings us to the fifth movie to feature Han Solo, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and the first with Solo played by a different actor. (For you nerds, yes, Perry King played Solo in the radio dramas, but that’s not a “movie.”) Look, to be honest, even going to back when this movie was first announced, the idea of Han Solo being played by anyone other than Harrison Ford didn’t seem super-appealing. Going back to my “what makes Solo work” theory, it would be impossible to find a young actor to play Solo who didn’t really want to play Solo. There was no way an actor would be found who had that kind of swagger on set of, “this is all pretty dumb,” which is kind of necessary for this character. I’ve enjoyed Alden Ehrenreich’s work since he stole the show in Hail, Caesar!, but he’s not going to be on set telling Ron Howard, “This is stupid, let’s just shoot this guy.”