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.”
But while watching, your brain just kind of adjusts. It takes a bit – I mean, we all have a lifetime of Ford as Solo in our heads to try and forget – but after awhile, your brain decides, “Well, this is the main character and I’m going to accept that now,” even though Ehrenreich’s Han Solo sounds less like Harrison Ford and more like circa 1997 Leonardo DiCaprio.
The first act of Solo is everything I didn’t need out of a movie about Han Solo. I kind of wish this movie was titled, Han Solo and the Kessel Run, or whatever, and we just jumped into the action. We know who these characters are! Because I sure didn’t need to know what Han was doing as a young man on Corellia or see him the first time he says, “Watch this,” only to have things go terribly wrong. Or to watch Han and Chewbacca meet for the first time. Or to watch Ehrenreich try to speak Wookiee. Or to watch Han tell Chewbacca that Chewbacca needs a shorter nickname. Or watch Han and Chewbacca share their first shower together. (This actually happens. It’s a long story.) There’s also a scene I won’t mention here, for fear it’s too spoilery, that made me let out an audible groan. In a way, it’s everything I was dreading about a Solo movie.
We jump three years ahead and Han meets Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his crew of thieves. Han wants in and, after a lot of prodding, Beckett eventually agrees – signing Han and Chewbacca up for a job that involves stealing freight off of a high-speed train. I will not get into details, but there’s a lot about this scene that makes absolutely no sense. We haven’t discussed much about the well-documented behind the scenes drama, but, up to this point in the movie, everything was going about how you’d expect a movie that had its directors fired halfway through would go.
Enter: Lando Calrissian.
Look, this isn’t a situation where Donald Glover shows up and is so good he saves the movie. And don’t get me wrong, Glover is great, but it’s at this point in the movie that everything gets better. This is the part where the movie finally knows what it should have been all along: a rootin’ tootin’ heist movie and not an origin story.
After the bungled train robbery – and now owing crime lord Dryden Voss (played fantastically by Paul Bettany) a lot of money – Beckett, Han, Chewie, and Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) enlist Lando and his co-pilot, a droid named L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), in what sounds like the impossible task of stealing a rare and powerful fuel from the spice mines of Kessel in an effort to pay back Dryden Voss. All of a sudden this becomes a really fun Han Solo movie. The infamous Kessel Run is a full-on delight.
All things considered, it’s probably a minor miracle that two-thirds of this movie works at all. If it is announced that Ron Howard will direct Solo 2: A Star Wars Story, or whatever it’s going to be called, I’d be excited to see that movie and what Howard would come up with without inheriting a dire situation. (And this movie certainly sets up a sequel, with a cameo from a Star Wars character you’d probably never expect to see in a million years.)
And the thing is, this isn’t the Han Solo we all know. It’s a different Solo, and that’s fine because replacing Ford as Solo is pretty much impossible. There’s an argument to be made about whether this movie even needs to exist (the box office projections would lead pretty much everyone at Lucasfilm to say, “Yes, it does”) but since it does exist, Ehrenreich does a nice job taking over a character who is impossible to recreate. And I do hope he gets another shot at Han because I can’t help but suspect that a lot of the behind the scenes turmoil isn’t really great for a young actor who is trying to portray “indifferent swagger.” But after the box office money rolls in, I also suspect in the next movie, Ehrenreich will be in a position to say things like, “Hey, this is stupid, why don’t we just shoot the guy?”
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.