Solo: A Star Wars Story ★★★½

"Assume everyone will betray you, and you will never be disappointed." ~ Beckett

I admit, I'm a sucker for these "Star Wars Stories," the spin-offs that are expanding the franchise in various directions beyond the trilogy of trilogies originally envisioned by creator George Lucas. Here we see director Ron Howard having fun with a Han Solo origins tale, which explains a lot about one of our favorite characters in that galaxy far, far away, ranging from how he met and befriended Chewbaca the Wookie to how came into possession of the Millennium Falcon and made the Kessel Run in just 12 parsecs.

Without giving too much away, on the planet Corellia, a streetwise orphan named Han (Alden Ehrenreich) steals a sample of coaxium, a powerful hyperspace fuel. He intends to trade it for safe passage off the planet with his girlfriend and fellow orphan Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). But before they can put their plan into effect, thugs drag him before Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt), the giant caterpillar -like creature who is the ruler of all Corella's orphans.

Han failed in his most recent assignment for the big bug, so she decides to make an example of him in front of all the other orphans. But clever Han escapes in a stolen transport, taking Qi'ra with him. They almost make it by bribing an Imperial Emigration Officer (Anna Francolini), but just as Han crosses the border, thugs grab Qi'ra and the two lovers are separated. Han vows to become a pilot, get a ship and return to Corellia to free her. Then, to get passage off the planet (and learn to fly) he joins the Imperial Navy, where a Recruitment Officer (Andrew Woodall), upon learning the new recruit is all alone without no surname, dubs him "Solo."

Fast forward three years. Our boy Han has been busted out of flight academy for insubordination. He's been assigned to the infantry on the muddy planet Mimban, battling to stay alive amid constant shooting. That's where he meets Tobias Beckett. (Woody Harrelson), pretending to be an Imperial Captain while leading a gang of thieves in heist with the war as their cover. Beckett's crew includes his first mate and main squeeze Val (Thandie Newton) along with the four-armed pilot Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau).

Han sees an opportunity to leave the muddy war behind and tries to team up with Beckett, but the criminal turns him in for desertion. That lands our hero in the brig with a man-eating beast, our favorite Wookie, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). To everyone's surprise, Han speaks Wookie and talks 'Chewie' into escaping with him. And on the recommendation of Rio, they manage to catch a ride off Mimban on Beckett's ship.

The cast also features Paul Bettany as the scar-faced near-human crime lord Dryden Vos; Donald Glover as the intergalactic smuggler Lando Calrissian who won (and lost) the Millennium Falcon gambling; and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the droid-libber L3-37, who serves as Lando's navigator and companion. There's also Erin Kellyman as Enfys Nest, the leader of a gang of pirate marauders -- The Cloud Riders -- and Ray Park plays the Crimson Dawn overlord Darth Maul (voiced by Sam Witwer), reprising the role seen in the animated TV series "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (2008-14).

There's certainly enough action here for any fan of the "wars" part of "Star Wars." There's also enough romantic tension, scheming, double dealing and role reversal to qualify this as a primo space opera. Chances are you will love the new character L3, bringing a feminine element to the world of C3PO- / R2D2-like droids. Howard has tossed in enough Easter Effs to keep the most avid fan watching over and over (even some from Indy Jones and Star Trek). And Chewie steals scenes, as always.

Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Pictures have a winner here, already worth $275 million at the box office and still in cinemas, so it should easily recover its $343.3 million investment after the run of theatrical openings reaches Japan on June 29. In the award season, look for Kellyman making her film debut to catch a few prizes for Best Newcomer (or at least Best Freckles), while Golden Globe-winner Glover receives kudos for his supporting role. It's a very entertaining movie, and nothing less that I'd expect from Howard or the franchise.

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