Bad Odds

There’s something of a contradiction when it comes to why Han Solo is such a memorable character. He doesn’t have the youthful dreamer sympathy that comes with Luke Skywalker, the spunky attitude of Princess Leia or the history of years-long strife and heartbreak of Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Han Solo is memorable because he’s supposed to be forgettable. He’s a nobody, a schmo, barely even worth mentioning as a nerf herder. Sure he’s charming, cocky and mostly-fearless, but he has no stake in the events of Star Wars. He’s just there, with nothing but the blaster on his hip and the charisma of Harrison Ford to make him one of the most famous characters in movie history. It’s not mystique or history that makes Han Solo cool, it’s just Han Solo.

 

I’m only pointing this out to remind people that Solo: A Star Wars Story had an uphill battle to endure before there was even a hint of who would be directing the movie. And even with all the drama that went down between Lucasfilm and Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writer/director team behind the 21 Jump Street movies and The Lego Movie who were originally slated to helm Solo before being replaced by groundbreaking visionary sci-fi icon…Ron Howard..this still didn’t make a good enough case for Solo to be made. It was understandable with Rogue One since the story of the Death Star plans being stolen could’ve been interesting (*Arrested Development voiceover* it wasn’t), but with Solo it feels like Lucasfilm are obviously cashing in on the nostalgia of the original Star Wars trilogy. Because despite the potential, telling the origins of a beloved character is a very fine line to walk and the odds of this being a successful endeavor were slim (not that Han would care, of course).

 

Anyway, about that movie: Solo follows everyone’s favorite smuggler in his younger years. Played by Alden Ehrenreich with more feathered hair and a vest with sleeves this time, Han starts as an orphan trying to escape the pickpocketing life with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Sadly fate separates them, but Han then lucks into meeting an angry wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and a shifty thief named Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Han and Chewie end up joining Beckett in his effort to steal some fuel for a testy gangster (Paul Bettany), but they employ the help of a smooth card shark named Lando (Donald Glover), his trusty droid sidekick (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and his spaceship: the Millenium Falcon.

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Solo has elements of different films rolled into its 135-minute runtime: an origin story, another prequel, a space western and a heist movie. Divvying the movie into specific sections is a bit challenging though, considering its pacing moves at breakneck speed with little time left to slow down and take in whatever mood certain scenes set up for the audience. Fortunately the movie doesn’t stop dead for callbacks to the original trilogy (which cut Rogue One off at the legs) and is mostly free of distracting fan service, staying with the events of its own plot and getting right to the action. It is very much its own story and yet it seems to want to get itself over with as quickly as possible. Which is a shame because, like Rogue One, the movie’s depiction of the dirtier bottom-feeders of the Star Wars universe is really interesting to see and shows the possibilities of expanding the cinematic universe of Star Wars. Even the two major action scenes, one being a train robbery and the other being a heist in an intergalactic mine, are well-staged and shot to flow smoothly by Howard. Solo works best when it’s not servicing the Star Wars brand, instead having its action scenes made with the styles of a western and a caper. When Solo is on point, it’s more reminiscent of Firefly and Ocean’s Eleven than a straight-up Star Wars movie.

 

The sets, spaceships, costumes and all-around design of Solo are impressive and immersive, if only the movie would pump its breaks every now and again to let the audience get more invested in the movie. For a movie over two hours long, Solo has an odd paradox of moving too fast and yet somehow feeling stretched out in its final half-hour. That accelerated pacing also doesn’t do much justice to the characters either, as many of the new ones are jettisoned from the movie by death and the established ones don’t have any further development. Which is a shame because there are some likable characters here, but most of them are done away with or don’t get to truly shine in the movie. The movie’s tightness also keeps alot of fun from seeping into its unnecessary drama. It made sense for Rogue One to be a grim and dramatic sense it was supposed to be akin to war movie, but the characters of Solo imply that this could be a looser, more fun adventure movie. Yet there are character deaths and grim moments that throw off any energy the movie gets going for itself. It’s another example of Star Wars thinking its more important than it actually is. The reason why Star Wars is so omnipresent and beloved is because it’s a fun sci-fi adventure with likable characters and a likable universe. So far these spinoff movies have gotten the latter part right but can’t nail down its characters right.

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Solo unfortunately bears the burden of being about characters, specifically one of the most famous in cinema history. That’s a lot of pressure on any actor, let alone relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. He was caught between a rock and a hard place: he could’ve either done a Harrison Ford impression and be called a glorified stand-in or approach Han from a completely different direction and be castrated by the fans for ruining their childhood hero. Ehrenreich has seemingly tried to do both, capturing Ford’s relaxed walk and constant bargaining like a used car salesman while also bringing his own idea of who Han Solo was as a younger man. He’s more chipper, better able to adapt to certain situations, much more optimistic than Ford’s droll pessimism, which is refreshing. But there’s just something missing about Ehrenreich’s performance that’s a bit hard to pinpoint: he doesn’t have a mean streak, he doesn’t have a strong presence and his charm can seem a bit annoying at points. It’s like Han is a blank slate waiting to be filled in, but there’s not enough of a base to his personality to warrant more adventures out of him.

 

Han Solo is actually one of the least interesting things about his own origin story, though he’s not alone. Emilia Clarke actually gets to show off a little more authority and charge, on top of being a gorgeous romantic lead straight out of a 1950s Hollywood classic. But her character Qi’ra is just another space for an actor to fill without anything to truly make her interesting, replaced with ties to the Star Wars expanded universe that bait for sequels. But the blankest of blank slates in the movie is Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos, a one-dimensional villain whose only definable feature are a bunch of scars on his face that flame-up whenever he gets angry (which is never explained). Bless Bettany for seemingly having fun in his brief scenes, but that doesn’t make up for his lack of threat. Fortunately the rest of the supporting cast is colorful and outstanding in certain scenes, despite how limited some of their screen times are. Woody Harrelson looks like he’s having the most fun in a long time spinning guns around and flexing long coats, while also being a believable father-figure for Han. Donald Glover, who’s arguably overtaken the movie in terms of must-see performances, slides into the shoes and cape of Lando Calrissian with the greatest of ease. While he doesn’t have the full-out confidence that Billy Dee Williams had, the simple act of Donald waving his fingers in the air has an air of swagger and smoothness to it. It also helps that he plays Lando as the straight man to the hijinks of Han and co. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton and Jon Favreau all make their marks as background players who sadly don’t get enough screen time to keep the fun going.

 
And that might be the biggest worry coming from Solo: Star Wars is starting to not be fun anymore. There was plenty of potential with Solo and some of it did make the final cut of the movie, but a combination of underdeveloped characters and rushed pacing to hide how underdeveloped the characters are make Solo feel intermittently fun but mostly hollow. It is an improvement from Rogue One in that there’s some levity and energy to Solo’s events and characters, but the movie miscalculates the need for it to be another “MOST BIGGEST MOVIE STORY IN YOUR LIFE HAIL STAR WARS” and not just a fun side quest. It’s the contradiction of Star Wars: we always want more, but what happens when the more we want is too much.

2.5/4

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Wade Started A Joke

How do you tell the same joke again? It was funny the first time, got laughs out of everybody and was completely different from the jokes everyone else tells at the party. It feels good and you want to keep that feeling going, so the obvious answer would be to tell everyone that joke you know. But how? Do you make it longer? Weirder? How do you take something that was supposed to be a throwaway goof and repeat it to the same (or better) effect? What a tough question, especially for handsome do-gooder Ryan Reynolds to answer. He certainly had a great love and passion for Deadpool, the merc with a mouth that’s been throwing a bomb-laced pie in the face of comic book lore for nearly 30 years, but Reynolds probably didn’t expect his passion project to become a nearly-$800 million smash hit that turned the superhero-movie phenomenon on its head (mostly by being slightly different from the superhero movie formula, but still). So since Deadpool was a hit and Fox likes money (and another superhero franchise since Wolverine is dead and the rest of them are circling the drain), Reynolds had to back a sequel. He had to tell the same joke for a bigger crowd than last time who heard how good the joke was and wanted more. Heavy lies the crown of the Canadian snark king.

 

Deadpool 2, 11 minutes longer and over-$50 million more expensive than the last one, brings us back to the adventures of Wade Wilson (Reynolds) the deformed, deranged, self-healing assassin specializing in monologues and swordplay. He tries sucking up to the X-Men, or just Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), by trying to help an angry young mutant named Russell (Julian Dennison). Unfortunately Russell is being hunted by Cable (Josh Brolin), a mercenary from the future with a robotic arm, a huge gun and very little patience. But Deadpool, who often leaps before he looks, decides to form a crew and take Cable head-on.

 

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In typical sequel fashion, Deadpool 2 is a bigger and louder production than its predecessor. There are more characters, more set pieces, more action scenes, more jokes, more schtick. Fortunately, Deadpool 2 seems very self-aware of the pitfalls of being a sequel and avoids being overstuffed. Despite the plot not really kicking in until the 30-minute mark, the movie has good pacing and has enough snark to mock foreshadowing and plot resolutions before the audience does. Big credit goes to newly-crowned action movie heavyweight David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde), who shoots the bigger and more meticulously-staged action scenes with smoothe composition and even some nice bits of slow-motion. Even the comedy gags are well-directed and edited, making the 119-minute runtime mostly zoom by. Writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Reynolds himself pack the script with barrels of one-liners, fourth-wall breaks, in-jokes and sarcasm. Amazingly almost all of them land, though the best jokes in the movie are the sight gags with physical comedy that use the movie’s hard-R rating to the fullest.

 

While Deadpool 2 is an improvement from its predecessor in the technical department, it can’t quite stick the landing of being a great movie entirely. Mostly because the movie starts running on fumes after its action centerpiece where Deadpool tries to rescue to Russell from a convoy. While it has a strong start in how it uses the X-Force, specifically a sly Zazie Beetz as Domino, it feels like the movie ran out of money near its end with some distractingly cheap-looking CGI and a 10-minute lull where the movie just stops. Much like the first movie, there’s a desire for Deadpool 2 to keep upping the ante and go balls to the wall with its action and violence in keeping with the spirit of the comic. It’s nice that Leitch would want to slow down and build the movie back up to its climax, but that’s when the movie becomes typical again and loses the manic spirit that makes Deadpool so fun to watch. The spirit of Deadpool 2 seems to be “whatever,” but more of a feeling of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks and less gleeful anarchy. Maybe it’s because of the budget or studio mandate or Reynolds himself, but Deadpool on the big screen always seems grounded by desperately wanting laughs more than it wants blood. And that’s fine because the movie is pretty funny, but it feels like there’s another half to the movie’s promise it keeps forgetting to make good on.

 

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But the movie is committed to its comedy base and to its credit, its got some funny people backing the lines. Reynolds has always seemed like a born movie star with his charming good looks backed up by his ace timing and investment in scenes. Once again hidden in a red suit and slathered in makeup, Reynolds breaks through it all with sheer charisma and attitude that never loses steam. Even if his movie can’t be great, Reynolds bounces and zips through every scene like Bugs Bunny with swords and not a single sign of exhaustion in his voice. His supporting cast is along for the ride too, with Hildebrand’s droll shtick always useful, Kapicic’s thick-headed optimism makes a great foil for Deadpool and Dennison (who proved his comedic chops last year in Hunt for the Wilderpeople) has no problem being a tough brat and takes getting punched in the face multiple times like a champ. Beetz also gets a star-making performance here, going toe-to-toe with Reynolds’s sarcasm and having a strong screen presence on her own. Surprisingly the weakest link in the movie is Brolin, only three weeks removed from playing one of the best villains in superhero movie history (and that didn’t even require using his real face!). Brolin is still intimidating as hell with his giant gun and cold glare, but it feels like he was just written in as a roadblock for Deadpool to throw punches at and doesn’t get much development. His Cable is essentially if John Conor had the same abilities as The Terminator, which is funny considered the future that the movie shows he traveled from looks exactly like the one ruled by the machines in the Terminator franchise.

 
Do I still wish Deadpool was just a one-off goof that inspired more outlandish comic-book movies instead of just becoming a new franchise? Of course, but that doesn’t sully the fact that Deadpool 2 is a lot of fun. It moves fast, it gets laughs and still has enough wit to be considered “different” from the typical superhero movie fair. It’s questionable as to how much longer Reynolds and his team can keep this joke funny, especially in the age where superhero fatigue is looming more and more. For now, let’s all just take comfort in the fact that Deadpool is still funny, Ryan Reynolds acting career is doing fine and David Leitch is still making action movies cool again. It’s the little details that keep the joke funny.

3/4