Imagine you love cranberry sauce. (It shouldn’t be that hard; it’s delicious.) Now imagine it’s Thanksgiving, and after hours of running the gantlet of unpleasant relatives and drinking just enough to maintain a pleasant, insulating buzz without succumbing to the temptation to tell them what you’re really thinking, you’re sitting down to dinner. In front of you is a plate piled high with food, but there’s no turkey, no stuffing, no mashed or sweet potatoes, just one big undifferentiated glob of glistening red goo. You dig in, and it’s delicious, but after a few bites you start to remember why cranberry sauce is a side dish and not an entrée, a counterbalance rather than a main course.
Harrison Ford gives the only great performance in the original Star Wars trilogy, and it’s arguably still the best in the entire series: charismatic, knowing, dancing just on the edge of self-awareness while still committing fully to the inherent silliness of the genre. Like Carrie Fisher, he brought a dash of grown-up modernity to a story rooted in childhood obsessions, but where Fisher’s tart asides conveyed a grudging reluctance to go along, Ford gave you the sense that he was secretly thrilled, an adult who moans about being forced to play childish games but then jumps in with barely veiled enthusiasm. His Han Solo was an aspiring hero who didn’t dare to claim that mantle, an ostensible mercenary forced to be what he dared not want to be.
It’s impossible to imagine Star Wars (or at least a good version of Star Wars) without Han Solo, but he works because he’s always coming at the story from an angle rather than being at its center. He’s the skeptic to Leia’s true believer, the sour to Luke’s sweet. Moving him into the leading role doesn’t just require explaining aspects of his past that are better left in shadow; it fundamentally changes who the character is and, more importantly, how it functions. When the production of Solo was in trouble, there were reports that an acting coach had been brought in to help Alden Ehrenreich with the formidable task of living up to Ford’s iconic performance, but in the movie as it was finally released, he isn’t trying to emulate Ford, and that’s something of a relief. Put the original trilogy’s wisecracking, devil-may-care sidekick in the spotlight without a dreamy idealist for him to push against and what’s left is a sour, disillusioned cynic, or a perpetual snark machine. (Solo’s dark look and the opening titles’ reference to the “mean streets” of the planet Corellia might be a vague indication that the movie intended to go in that broodier, more noirish direction, but there’s nothing in either original directors Phil Lord’s and Chris Miller’s or replacement Ron Howard’s backgrounds to suggest they could have pulled it off.)
Ehrenreich’s Han is a little more gee-whiz, in the same vein if hardly to the same extent as Jake Lloyd’s baby Anakin. He’s got trust issues, as any orphan who’s survived on his wits would, but he’s more lucky than he is smart. (His idea of thinking fast is grabbing a rock and pretending it’s a thermal detonator, a move that wrong-foots his opponents because of its brazen stupidity.) In Solo, the role of Han Solo is played by … Lando Calrissian. Donald Glover’s turn as the intergalactic cardsharp is pure fan service, so carefully modeled on Billy Dee Williams’ Lando that he might as well have Empire’s soundtrack playing into an earpiece as he delivers his lines. But the performance works, even if it’s not in the same key as the other actors’. (Glover’s high-key style makes me wonder whether his scenes are among the estimated 30 percent of Lord and Miller’s work that remains in the finished film.) Glover’s Lando has an inch-deep swagger, a carefully crafted carefreeness. He can bluff his way through any card game, but only because he literally has an ace—or least the Sabacc equivalent thereof—up his sleeve. There’s not much more of him than there is of Williams in the original movies, but his portrayal is so potent it doesn’t take much.
It’s so potent, in fact, that it’s all we need. Which is why my heart sank a little when it seemed that Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy had told an interviewer that a Lando solo movie would be next on the docket. (The magazine, France’s Premiere, later retracted the quote, chalking it up to an error in translation.) Glover’s Lando is the kind of character you love precisely because there’s so little of him. To his credit, Glover himself understands this, which is why his log line for a potential Lando movie—“Frasier in space”—bears only a passing relationship to the character we’ve seen thus far. If you make Lando the protagonist, he stops being Lando, and then you’re back inventing a new character to play the role that he’s abandoned.