In a sense “The 15:17 to Paris” is a tough movie to criticize. It’s a biographical drama/thriller based on the true story of three Americans and their tremendous acts of heroism aboard a train bound for Paris from Amsterdam. Here’s the catch, the film stars the actual three heroes playing themselves. Director and producer Clint Eastwood offers them an opportunity to tell their story which is a great thing. But this is no documentary and none of the three are professional actors. This opens the door for criticisms you simply can’t avoid.
The friendships between Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos date back to their elementary school days as rambunctious outcasts. Later the three would go their separate ways, Stone becoming an Air Force staff sergeant, Sadler studying kinesiology at California State, and Skarlatos a National Guard specialist serving in Afghanistan. Despite being separated by thousands of miles they always stayed connected.
In 2015 the three buddies reunite to backpack across Europe. This eventually (and I emphasize ‘eventually’) leads to what the movie’s title refers to and what we actually see in the trailers. In Amsterdam they board a Thalys train to Paris for the last leg of their trip. Also onboard is a terrorist armed with an assault rifle, a pistol, and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition. The actions of Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos to thwart the attack would save countless innocent lives.
The film’s advertising leans on the events aboard the train, but the movie itself spends little time there. Eastwood and first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal spend a chunk of the movie highlighting Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos’ childhood. The young unknowns portraying them flounder mightily. Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer add some acting credentials playing struggling single moms, but even they fall victim to one of the movie’s biggest problems – a script desperately grasping for anything resembling authenticity. Line after line of uninspired dialogue feels as if it’s being read from a page than coming from within the characters.
We see this elsewhere when Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos take to the screen. They too suffer due to a script which inadvertently accentuates their lack of acting chops. But Eastwood is no help either. His stars could understandably use some direction, but Eastwood seems to be working in a hands-off mindset. That may work with seasoned talent but here it results in performances that are dry, sheepish and borderline excruciating. Toss in tons of cringe-worthy buddy banter and it only gets worse.
The film takes us through a drawn out middle act that turns into some kind of weird European travelogue. I’m pretty sure it’s meant to emphasize the camaraderie between these three pals, but it’s so bland and pasted together with practically no attention given to what makes these guys tick. We get some beautiful sites, two wedged in and then tossed aside female characters, a pointless (and annoying) nightclub scene, and a ludicrous amount of selfies before the three finally board the train.
It’s here that the movie finally gets on track (no pun intended). The train sequence unfolds with the right amount of intensity and Eastwood’s camera maneuvers through the tight quarters capturing the terror and the heroism. And interestingly Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos are at their best in these scenes. Perhaps they feel more in their element or maybe Eastwood is actually offering meaningful direction. It almost saves the movie. Sadly it comes an hour too late.
It’s a chore trying to carve an identity out of “The 15:17 to Paris”. Is it a faith-based drama, a coming of age story, an action thriller? I’m guessing it wants to be a little of all. Unfortunately Clint Eastwood’s finished product is a well-intended but surprisingly awkward misfire. Only the last 30 minutes felt like the tribute these three courageous young men deserved. I really enjoyed the last act and kept thinking to myself that their real story was just getting started. Too bad we couldn’t start there instead.
VERDICT – 2 STARS