Review Roundup - First Shot


Well, here we go again. With the mixed reaction to The Last Jedi still fresh in most people's minds it's time for the LFL machine to fire back up to deliver what should at least be a less challenging tale of spaceships and galactic outlaws. An origin story for Han Solo has never been something I'd be interested in, and the kind of fill in the blanks style storytelling required isn't an approach I consider creative or exciting. The controversy over the original directing team being fired (Lord and Miller from The Lego Movie) was well publicised, suggesting that even any risks were being squeezed out of the project to make sure it stayed on the level of committee approved fun and nothing more. So with all the reshoots done, how does everything stack up?

Solo is a very grey bland sort of experience, something which goes beyond the murky CGI visuals and the desaturated cinematography. Despite Donald Glover's Lando trying to inject some sense of charisma into the proceedings it's a very dry experience that generally goes through all the motions and does little else. Han Solo himself (Alden Ehrenreich) moves from slum rat speeder thief to Galactic Empire cannon fodder before settling on becoming a mercenary for hire, but it's not a story that really ever allows for subtle characterisation. He's fine, (and everyone's fine) but there's never any sense that this is an optimistic kid being turned into a cynic by the world around him even when things are pretty dire. Everyone has their one note and they stick to it.

Elsewhere we have Beckett (Woody Harrelson) as the older, more jaded smuggler who reluctantly takes Han on board, and Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) as the romantic lead who vanishes for three years only to show up with some rather shady company in the form of crime boss Dryden (Paul Bettany). There are also several side characters that barely get time to register because of the story structure, which means that Beckett's partner in crime Val (Thandie Newton) and alien pilot Rio (Jon Favreau) have their screen time cut short before we get to know them. How all these characters interact and the sorts of scrapes they get into feels a little stilted. The pacing of the film and its main set pieces is very lethargic when it isn't throwing visual effects at the screen.

The action itself is all pretty entertaining although most of it boils down to a car chase, a train robbery and a jail break before yet another asteroid field sequence. Like everything else it's by the numbers, although the last one in particular is very messy. The first half of the story in which we see Han's life on the streets of industrial dystopia Corellia before he's taken in for a big job are the most engaging parts of the narrative, and there's a real sense of place as he struggles to get by with a band of orphans working for a syndicate. But by the time we reach the flying monorail it feels like there's a focus on spectacle rather than character, and the new faces sometimes come and go before we get a sense of who is who. It's the sort of set piece that should really have been merged with the final heist so that other story elements can be developed.

The plot itself is pretty simplistic as we're shown why C-3PO was worried about the Spice Mines of Kessel before we reach the Kessel Run itself. Once throwaway lines that meant next to nothing, these are now all things that can be expanded into whole films. Most of the fan service is pretty benign, although the scene in which Han is given his surname (for some reason) is very awkward, and feels like the kind of gag that should have been cut before the directorial change considering that there's a scene in which he reminisces about his father later on. There's a laughable reveal towards the very end that feels like a Marvel end credits tease that someone really wanted to shove into the main story for no reason, and there's a lot of stuff about droid rights that feels like it's here just to call back to things like restraining bolts and humanoid only bars.

In some sense this is all part of the fun, but at times it comes across as rather laboured. Like the soundtrack which juggles classic John Williams motifs with new and mostly forgettable material from John Powell, there's something a bit unnatural about the whole experience. There's never anything as wince inducing as the CGI death masks or the prequel writing problems from Rogue One, but it's never a fully flowing swashbuckler space western either. It still feels like filler, despite it all being mostly competent overall. Like L3 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who is yet another sassy robot side kick, there's just a sense that this is all just mediocre painting by numbers at best. It's always been a product in some way of course, but it's a tale that could have that could be done with more pizazz.

It's not all so dry however, and there are plenty of good world building moments along the way. This is a film with a scene in which Clint Howard runs a back alley Gonk fighting racket after all. There's yet another alien filled night club with it's own spin on the Mos Eisley cantina, and there are some unexpected turns when Han meets with his original employer Lady Proxima that veer into far more fantastic territory. Again it's worth noting Lando as the double crossing smooth talker who's wardrobe alone is a highlight. All these pieces are well crafted, it's just a shame that it's never more than the sum of its parts.

If you're happy enough just to watch another spectacle adventure story involving the Millennium Falcon and a bunch of neat alien costumes, then strap yourselves in because that's what you'll get. But there's a kind of charm and even depth that could have been reached for in this sort of story, a tale of roguish crooks and thieves out of their league. It's a plot that works even before you consider throwing in more TIE Fighters and blaster battles. Ehrenreich was never going to be a perfect young Harrison Ford, because it's an impossible task. Should they have just said ...maybe we shouldn't? Perhaps. But as it's here there's a certain watchable quality to it all, even if it's never really very compelling and it often straddles that line of being just okay.


MANHUNT (2017)

Oh boy, here's where I start to get really frustrated with a movie that I actually wanted to be good and was kind of anticipating. John Woo's return to his origins (or at least the action that made his name) was a long time coming. He dabbled in embarrassing Hollywood schlock and he gave historical epics a go, but everyone always wanted another Hong Kong based crime melodrama full of gun battles and chase set pieces. Well all I can say is be careful what you wish for. On the surface this seems like a return to the old standards as a fugitive and a cop become entangled in a medical corporation conspiracy. But everything just feels wrong from the pacing of the story to the staging of the action.

In the old days these films didn't have particularly deep characters, but there was always a kind of screen presence and charisma involved whether it was Chow Yun-Fat or Tony Leung. However this time around we have Chinese lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) being framed for murder and clashing with Japanese Detective Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama). It's a basic premise but neither of them really feel like strong enough personalities to carry the story. Elsewhere there are shady goings on at the laboratory who want the case to be brushed under the carpet, and a subplot about two female assassins who come to blows when one of them feels emotionally connected to Du Qui (for some reason). None of this is compelling and it's all told in a very convoluted manner that drags everything out.

The action itself is all pretty flat, often feeling like a modern parody of the old '80s and early '90s classics instead of being a true successor to them. There are bad visual effects and dull chase sequences, as well as a ridiculous showdown at a science fiction style prison that comes out of nowhere. They did at least cast old favourite Yasuaki Kurata from Fist of Legend and Legend of a Fighter and actually gave him some action beats, but it's too little too late. I'd rather see a story about his character living on the streets and getting mixed up in the illegal drug trials when his friends start to vanish. Overall it's a real shame this doesn't work. There are glimpses of the glory days every so often, but it's all just so lacklustre.