The moment I became a “Star Wars” fan forever was in the cantina scene in what I will always refer to as the first “Star Wars” movie, now of course known as Episode IV, “A New Hope.” It was when Ben Kenobi tells Han (Harrison Ford, of course) he hopes to avoid any Imperial entanglements, and Han leans back and says, “Well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it?” with so much rakish charm that we have to instantly forgive him for bragging about making the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs. (We will always be too polite to mention that parsecs measure distance not time. Who knows, maybe a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, they told time in parsecs.)
So, would I like to see that Kessel run? And how Han met Chewy the wookiee? And how me met the dashing buccaneer, Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams in Episodes V and VI and here by master-of-all-arts Donald Glover? And the bet that won Han the brand-spanking-new Millennium Falcon? Written by “Empire Strikes Back” and “Force Awakens” screenwriter Lawrence Kasden, with his son Jonathan (“Dawson’s Creek”)? With the divine Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”) voicing a slightly loopy and more than slightly lippy droid? You bet I do!
Does it deliver? You bet your Han Solo hanging dice it does! Does Han shoot first? This time he does!
This prequel has the wonderfully charismatic Alden Ehrenreich (the “Would that t’were so simple” guy from “Hail, Ceasar!”) as Han, who lives with other orphans in a work camp led by Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). Think Fagin, without the warmth. He has a plan to escape with the girl he loves, Qi’ra (“Game of Thrones” dragon-rider Emilia Clarke). Han is a bit of a rascal, but also an optimist back in these teenage years. “Wherever we go it can’t be worse than where we’ve been,” he says. But we know it can.
And as we know from films like “Casablanca” and “The Fifth Element,” whether it’s the letters of transit or the multipass, you have to have the right paperwork to get away. Han escapes (and in the film’s cheesiest moment, is assigned a last name based on his solitary status) but Qi’ra is captured. Han decided to enlist with the Imperial forces to get trained as a pilot so he can return to save her.
Three years later, Han has been thrown out of the academy and is now a grunt in the Imperial military. He meets a bandit named Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and his ragtag crew (is there any other kind?) of daredevils, and agrees to join forces with them on a heist so he can get a ship go back and rescue Qi’ra. This leads to a marvelously staged sci-fi version of a western train robbery.
It turns out that Beckett is not stealing on his own behalf, but working for someone else, someone who is not forgiving when things do not go well, harking back to the original cantina scene again, where we learn that Han had to jettison the cargo he was delivering to Jabba the Hutt. The big crime boss is Dryden Vos, played by Paul Bettany, with scars across his face as though a space tiger clawed his cheeks, scars that redden when he gets angry. Beckett and Han have to try again.
Along the way Han meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando. I am not going to spoil how; I’ll just say that both encounters are fitting and highly entertaining. Han does meet up with Qi’ra again, but is not ready to see how she has been affected by what she has had to do to survive. She joins the team and they take on another big heist. There’s a high-stakes card game, a trial by combat, and good advice that gets ignored. And the better you know the series, the more references and callbacks you will be delighted to discover. There are new insights in well-known characters and intriguing new ones, especially Waller-Bridge as a droid with a few crossed wires. In addition to the touches that center this in the “Star Wars” universe, there references to classic movie genres, heist films and westerns and maybe “The Wages of Fear.” It may not be necessary, but it is most welcome, a thrilling and warm-hearted adventure in its own right that fits as satisfyingly into the “Star Wars” universe as that last piece in a jigsaw puzzle.