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‘Solo’ Isn’t Special, but it is Fun

No matter how good the films are, I worry that we are creeping dangerously close to the point where “Star Wars” will lose its magic and we no longer eagerly look forward to the release of a new one…

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is the origin story to the character of Han Solo, portrayed in the original trilogy by Harrison Ford. Here, Alden Ehrenreich takes over the reins of the character, with Donald Glover as his friend Lando Calrissian (originally played by Billy Dee Williams), Joonas Suotamo as the Wookie Chewbacca and Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Paul Bettany all in new roles. Ron Howard directs after taking over for Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, who were fired by Lucasfilm midway through filming.

You won’t read a single review about this film that doesn’t bring up the behind-the-scenes drama that plagued production so I won’t beat a dead horse, but in case you aren’t familiar with the situation here are the bullet points. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, best known for helming the “Jump Street” movies, were originally hired to do the film but after they encouraged a lot of improve and were getting away from the script the studio fired them and brought in Ron Howard, who in turn reshot about 70% of the movie (some even say it’s up to 90%), ballooning the budget to $250 million. No one was really clamoring for a Han Solo origin story in the first place, part of what people like about him is his mystery, but as turns out, for a film with this much going against it, it isn’t half bad.

I was very high on Alden Ehrenreich after his show-stealing performance in “Hail, Caesar!” and when he was cast as Solo I got excited. Even after his bland turn in Warren Beatty’ s ”Rules Don’t Apply” I still thought he had the charisma to play a young Han Solo. And it’s odd, because half the time here he does have the swagger, cockiness and dry wit of Harrison Ford and it makes you have flashes of the iconic character. But at other points he seems lost, timid and almost a secondary role in his own film. I’m not sure if it was the direction (/change in directors), script or pressure of the role, but it was just odd to see him give half of a good performance.

Everyone else here is fine, with Woody Harrelson being a mentor of sorts and sneaking a few funny bits in here or there, Emilia Clarke is given little to do except stand there and be a goal and reminder of Han’s past and Donald Glover (naturally) oozes charm and panache as Lando, although he’s a bit of an extended cameo.

The action scenes are solid, with two big set pieces on a snowy train and inside a jail riot, although there isn’t anything as memorably iconic as “the hallway scene” from “Rogue One” or the Obi Wan-Anakin fight in “Revenge of the Sith.” Cinematographer Bradford Young, who earned an Oscar nomination for “Arrival,” gives the film a gritty, at times gold hue and I think it does a good job making this feel like its own little film in the sprawling Star Wars universe, not being so polished.

Speaking of “Rogue One,” much like the hallway scene there is a fun surprise that fans of the franchise will enjoy and it is cool to see some of the “how did Han end with [like this]?” questions get fleshed out. That being said the rest of the film does tend to suffer from the natural problems origin stories do, meaning it fills in too many holes about the character’s past or even gives us answers we didn’t even know we were supposed to be asking.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is very competently made and I think does just enough to earn its place in the saga’s legacy. I can’t say that I will ever have a dying urge to see it again or that I want to see more of these spin-offs, but I do think it is worth the one-time watch. It isn’t anywhere near as ambitious as “The Last Jedi,” comforting as “The Force Awakens” or great at giving us closure to storylines like “Rogue One” but for what it had to do, and all it had working against it, I’d say things turned out alright.

Critic’s Grade: B


Third Time’s the Charm for ‘Expendables’

Expendables_3_posterThe “Expendables” franchise in a nutshell: Sylvester Stallone has gathered the biggest action stars from the past 30 years, thrown in a few old jokes and sprinkled it all with excessive violence and gunplay. The results have been mixed, with the first film being fun but taking itself way too seriously, while the sequel was a little more self-relevant but was still sloppy.

With “The Expendables 3”, Stallone and his team have clearly taken notes because, while not a masterpiece or even particularly good film, the third time is the charm for this group for the steroid and Botox mercenaries.

Directed by Australian newcomer Patrick Hughes, “Expendables 3” follows Barney Ross (Stallone) as he tries to find new, younger blood in order to bring down an arms dealer, and former Expendables member, played by Mel Gibson. Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas and Arnold Schwarzenegger are among the many costars.

First things first, the jokes are much more prevalent than in past films. Stallone brought onboard Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, writers of “Olympus Has Fallen”, to co-write the script with him, and it results in the same irrelevant, intentionally awful jokes that not only made “Olympus” so much fun, but the action films from the 80’s. Harrison Ford, filling in for Bruce Willis who was fired after demanding $1 million a day, has the most fun of the newcomers, and unlike Willis looks like he actually gives a darn about being there. He has smile on his face the entire film, and has one funny running gag where he tells Jason Statham to “stop mumbling” whenever he speaks in his British accent.

Also, unlike the first two films, we know and actually empathize with the villain. Gibson’s weapons dealing character is given an actual backstory and there is one scene where he is talking to Stallone about why he does what he does and feels genuine.

Of all the newcomers, two stand out for reasons they may not like, the first being the lone female Expendable, played by UFC fighter Ronda Rousey. Her acting has a lot of opportunity for improvement (nice way of saying she’s not very good), and on more than one occasion she clichély says “men” when a group of the guys do something stupid. The other “standout” is Antonio Banderas, who, I swear to God, pulls a Jar Jar Binks. He is just over-the-top, quickly saying unfunny lines and never stopping the talking.

When news broke that this film was PG-13 instead of R, most people freaked out. We saw what happened when an R-rated franchise goes PG-13 earlier with RoboCop, so many people were nervous that this one. However the 4th Die Hard was rated PG-13, and that is arguably featured the best action of the series. And “Expendables 3” luckily falls closer to the Die Hard side of things.

Director Patrick Hughes stages some fantastic action sequences, and right from the start of the film you know you’re in for a thrill ride as it opens up on a train during a hostage rescue. Yes, there are the obligatory close-ups and shaky cams that accompany PG-13 films, but it never distracts you (this was shot as R but was cut to PG-13, because money).

At this point you know whether you like these films or not. I personally found the mix of new age tech versus old school fist fights an entertaining step in a new direction for the franchise, and is the best film in the series (take that statement for what it’s worth). There’s a part in the film when Ford turns to Stallone and says “that’s some of the most fun I’ve had in years”. I wouldn’t be lying if I said “Expendables 3” is some of the most fun I’ve had all summer.

Critics Rating: 7/10