The production of Solo: A Star Wars Story involved one of the strangest baton-passes in recent memory. The second spin-off in the Star Wars universe was originally entrusted to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, makers of febrile, self-aware pipe bombs like 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie and their sequels – seemingly distracted films for a genuinely distracted generation. The idea of directors as irreverent as Lord and Miller let loose on material that’s usually treated (by fans at least) as some sort of Dead Sea scroll was exciting – and not to be, with the directors replaced, after shooting was almost complete, by Ron Howard.

It’s a fascinating switch, for Howard is the cinematic opposite of Lord-Miller. He’s a modern-day Michael Curtiz: a hired hand in the best sense, moving between comedy (Splash), manic action (Rush), dramas both prestige (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) and chamber (Frost/Nixon), and half a dozen other subgenres. There’s no discernable personal style, but apart from the leaden Robert Langdon films, his work usually ranges from eminently watchable and commercial corn of the highest order. One can imagine Lucasfilm sending this oldest of pros a distress hologram, telling him the kids weren’t all right.

Even more surprising than the switch is the fact that it works, sort of. Solo doesn’t set out to be more than a respectable tenth entry in a franchise that’s recently alienated a section of its fans by trying to be narratively bolder (though only by Star Wars standards) and more diverse. Howard isn’t the sort to ruffle feathers, yet he manages to capture some of the joyous, wide-eyed spirit of the 1977 film. It’s the least angsty Star Wars film in ages, and the better for it: the romantic tracks sing, the action sequences are coherent and exciting, there’s fog when it’s appropriate and wind whipping people’s hair when it should be.

Before he joined up with Luke and Leia, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) – the ‘Solo’ will duly arrive – is a small-time thief on the planet Corellia with dreams of being a pilot and roaming the galaxy with his partner, Q’ira (Emilia Clarke). Their escape doesn’t go as planned; Han ends up joining the Imperial army and, later, teaming up career criminals Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). One thing leads to another and soon they’re all running a complicated heist for crime lord Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany), who has in his employ – in all the cantinas in all the galaxies, etc – Q’ira. This misshapen posse is joined by Han’s other great love, Chewbacca, and by Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who puts the out (if droid-love counts) in outlaw.

In the months leading up to the release of the first Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One (2016), there was a good deal of excitement regarding its diverse cast. Yet, those performances turned out to be dour, stilted – like the film itself. Reports from the sets of Solo suggested that Lord and Miller weren’t exactly actors’ directors either. But Howard, whatever his limitations as a film-maker, has a rare facility with performers (he’s directed eight Oscar-nominated turns). It’s difficult not to see his steadying hand in the measured, appealing turns by Clarke and Harrelson, and in Bettany’s excellent hissing villain. Ehrenreich channels the twinkly eyed Harrison Ford of American Graffiti and the 1977 Star Wars instead of the grumpy Ford of legend, and gets by fine. Then there’s Glover, who slips in as much sex appeal and eccentricity as anyone’s ever managed in the Lucasverse.

Lawrence Kasdan has shaped the Star Wars story over four films, and it seems callous to suggest that he give way to a younger voice. But the writing on Solo (with his son, Jonathan Kasdan), while serviceable, seems mired in the past. I saw “On these mean streets…" in the opening titles and wondered, are we finally getting a Star Wars noir? (We weren’t.) Later, someone signs off with “It’s been a ride, babe, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything," as if we’re in a ‘40s movie, an impression strengthened by the number of times various characters are addressed as “kid" (come to think of it, Han Solo isn’t far from an intergalactic Rick, unwilling to stick his neck out during a world war).

Far from being the disaster many had predicted, Solo is the best-acted (I haven’t even gotten to Phoebe Waller-Bridge), most enjoyable Star Wars film since the original trilogy. It’s also the most conservative, making fewer missteps than its immediate predecessors only because it takes fewer risks. This isn’t the Han Solo movie you need – it’s unlikely such a thing will ever be. But it’s a perfectly good Han Solo movie to want.

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