If there's one takeaway from "Solo: A Star Wars Story ," it's that our favorite scoundrel had been through a lot before he ever met up with Luke, Obi-Wan and Leia.
Sure, he'd talked up his Kessel Run time and out-maneuvering Imperial ships, but this film contains at least three epic set-pieces, involving a job atop a high-speed train careening around a snowy mountain, a fiery space showdown with a squid-like super monster and an explosion-filled shootout, that are so spectacular that they have the effect of making what Han ends up going through in "Episode IV" and beyond seem suspiciously tame by comparison. Bigger, louder, and more, more, more seem to be the guiding principles of the film and while on their own they might make a pleasurable romp, it's dubious as to whether or not these pre-Skywalker adventures have really added anything of value to the character. There's an argument to be made that it might even undermine his hero's arc in the first film.
It's the overriding issue with "Solo: A Star Wars Story," which had baggage from the get-go. Unlike a character from a book or a play, Han Solo didn't exist outside of Harrison Ford, and the two are now linked by over 40 years of goodwill and nostalgia. Although no character is so precious that they can't break from the actor who made them memorable — even Indiana Jones had two younger versions of himself — it's still not an enviable position to be in. You're at a disadvantage before you start.
The man who took the job, Alden Ehrenreich, does not look or sound like Ford, and it's difficult to adjust at the beginning. You can't help but scrutinize every gesture, every smirk, every aside as you try to get used to him. Eventually you do, and the talented Ehrenreich wins you over with his execution, capturing Han's spirit, his sarcasm, egotism and charm with apparent ease.
Co-written by Star Wars royalty Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan Kasdan, "Solo: A Star Wars Story" introduces Han on his home planet of Corellia, where he serves under a local mob boss and dreams of fleeing, becoming a pilot and owning a ship.
The early scenes are incredibly dark, literally. Shot by cinematographer Bradford Young, it's an interesting aesthetic choice, likely meant to lend a vintage vibe, but also distracting as though you're watching a worn VHS copy of "Episode IV," where faces are only clear in extreme close-up and even then it's still through a thick layer of fog and gauze (it clears up eventually).
Young Han is scrappy and overconfident and makes things up as he goes along, unafraid to lie or trust his gut. It's how he ends up not only getting out, but escaping military service and hooking up with a band of outlaws led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who functions as mentor and possible cautionary tale for the impressionable Han.
"Do you have any idea what it's like to live with a price on your head?" Beckett asks. It's one of the many unsubtle references to things to come, and a fallback refrain in "Solo" where some of the most memorable and pleasing moments are winking references to future memorable lines.
They'll soon meet up with the man Beckett is working for, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), and encounter Han's old friend from Corellia, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) before taking off on a dangerous smuggling mission.
There's a lot for fans to digest as the film speeds through a check-list of Han's origin components, like how he meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and how he comes across the Millennium Falcon. There are other key elements that probably are best left to the experience.
And that experience, in director Ron Howard's very capable hands, is a largely enjoyable one. You can't help but wonder what the end result would have been if Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who were fired deep into production, had gotten to see their project through to the end, or what it would have been like had Howard been involved since the beginning, but there are no obvious cracks or seams.
"Solo" is a straightforward piece of pulpy entertainment with some very agreeable performances from Ehrenreich and Glover, who seems to be having the most fun of all the actors in playing up Lando's suave demeanor, and fun classic Western flourishes, despite the excessively big action sequences.
The best moments in "Solo" are the simpler ones: The romance, the friendships, the clashing egos. Perhaps a lesson for the inevitable sequel.
"Solo: A Star Wars Story," A Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sequences of sci-fi action/violence." Running time: 135 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.