Everyone comes from somewhere, even a scoundrel and ruffian like Han Solo, a first-of-his-name Corellian who loves nothing more than to pretend he’s not bound by loyalty or family or doing what’s right. In Ron Howard’s prequel, “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” we meet Han (Alden Ehrenreich, stepping into Harrison Ford’s very big shoes with style) at least a decade before he teams up with Luke and Leia and the rest of the beloved galaxy gang. Howard’s film skips the traditional opening crawl, but familiar teal lettering still spells out the current state of things: It’s a “lawless time” in the galaxy, and scruffy outcasts like Han shuffle by under the watchful eye of small-potatoes bosses who participate in an economy ruled by massive crime syndicates.
But a beaten-down Han isn’t the young man we meet in the opening frames of “Solo”; he’s a scrappy wannabe pilot with a taste for danger and a nifty way of getting into (and out of) high-stakes adventures. Life on Corellia might not be great, but Han has a stolen vehicle and a purloined capsule filled with pricey fuel, and he’s about to get the hell off this damned rock and on with his life. Ehrenreich’s take on Han is charming and effective, and it’s easy to see how his big-talking striver will morph into the lovable rogue that Ford played in four blockbuster hits.
As an origin story, Howard’s film has to line up a series of expected beats — how Han got his name, where he learned to fly, how he met Chewbacca and Lando, when he acquired the Millennium Falcon, — but “Solo” crams all that stuff into an entertaining package that can also stand alone. (That does’t mean the film shies away from teeing up further adventures; this is a franchise, after all.) It may be a prequel, and it may ostensibly stand alone, but it fits into the wider galaxy with ease.
But first, there’s that stolen vehicle and that filched fuel, and “Solo” has a whiz-bang opening action sequence that reveals a bit more about the man underneath the bluster. Han’s early years were not good ones, but armed with all the confidence in the world and a chance to get away from his hardscrabble life working for the fearsome Lady Proxima (rendered here as some sort of jewel-loving, water-dwelling snake), he’s suddenly lit up by nothing but possibilities. This Han is an optimist, but that’s about to be kicked right out of him.
The first 20 minutes of “Solo” zip through Han’s life on Corellia and his eventual stint in the Empire’s infantry at a pace so frenetic that it’s worrying, before settling down into a compelling heist film with a distinctly Western vibe (thank “Star Wars” regular Lawrence Kasdan for that, along with his son Jonathan Kasdan, with whom he wrote the film’s script). Han makes his way off Corellia, but not without a price: He’s forced to leave behind his first love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) and join the hated Imperial Navy, in hopes that he can finally learn how to fly and parlay that into the kind of life that would get him back to Corellia to save Qi’ra, even if it takes years (it takes years).
Han does learn how to fly (or so we’re told), but when the film picks up years later, he’s part of a weak infantry battling it out on a mud-encrusted planet for some unknown, Empire-demanded end. He hates it, because of course Han Solo hates being under anyone’s thumb, let alone the Empire’s. That’s when things really pick up. When he finds a band of marauders (including Woody Harrelson and Thandie Newton) preparing to steal a military vessel for a big job, it’s all over: He can see he’s meant to be a scoundrel, and these are some serious scoundrels.
Harrelson is somewhat muted in the role of Tobias Beckett, a longtime thief initially resistant to bringing Han and his new pal Chewbacca (Joona Suotamo) into the fold. So much of “Star Wars” is about giving into the necessity of other people, and even Beckett has to recognize the use of a bright-eyed youngster with serious flying skills. His Beckett isn’t some scenery-chewing caricature of a smuggler; he’s a hard-bitten guy who has lost a lot along the way and isn’t shy about doling out chestnuts about never trusting anyone or how people are always predictable. It’s clear where much of Han’s philosophy springs from.
Beckett’s heist is a complicated one, but he and his crew know what they’re doing, and the addition of Han and Chewie seems destined to put them on top in no time. “Solo” offers up an instant-classic of an action sequence: On an ice planet, the team takes on a fast-moving train that’s filled to the brim with that same fuel that got Han in trouble in his younger years — a pricey item they’ve been tasked with stealing by crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Things, of course, go wrong, and soon “Solo” is spinning off into yet another pulse-pounding heist, with still more characters, and enough energy to keep a complex story chugging along with efficiency.
Most of the film’s supporting characters introduced in the film appear in service to the Kasdans’ ever-evolving criminal tale, one that has far-reaching implications for Han. (These range from the beloved, like Donald Glover’s tremendous take on Lando Calrissian, who could easily handle his own spinoff; to the brand-new, like Lando’s whipsmart and rebellious droid L3-37, who’s played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge in scene-stealing fashion.) It’s not as dark as the franchise’s other standalone film, the satisfying and sad “Rogue One,” and even without lightsaber battles or Jedi or anyone aligned with the formal Rebellion, it still captures a humor and pace “Star Wars” audiences expect.
For anyone wondering what former directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s vision might have looked like, there are scattered moments — an exaggerated facial expression here, a slightly goofy action sequence weighed down with a dramatic score there — that hint at the more comedic film they were reportedly making. It doesn’t work in such small amounts, and juxtaposed against the more straightforward charms of Howard’s film, it becomes clear just how off-kilter such a feature would be.
While “Solo” is often occupied with heists and hijinks, there are plenty of nods to the wider galaxy and what lies beyond Han’s view. At the very least, now we know who gave Han and Chewie the idea to seek out that big-talking crime boss on Tatooine, and Han’s eagerness to get to the next step in his adventure is both thrilling and believable. And yet one of the greatest pleasures of the film is how it digs into the slow evolution of Han’s lifelong taste for rebellion, one that will eventually lead him to become part of a collective resistance. For now, he’s a lone gun, but “Solo” ably lays out how and why that might change. We may know where he ends up, but for now, we can’t wait to see where he goes next.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” will be released in theaters on May 25.