'The 15:17 to Paris': Film Review

One big scene does not a movie make.

Clint Eastwood's latest casts three real heroes who stopped a terrorist on a Paris-bound fast train in 2016 as the main actors in a story about ordinary people having greatness thrust upon them.

Is there a full-length feature film in the dramatic but blink-and-it's-over incident of three young Americans subduing a heavily armed terrorist determined to kill as many people as possible on a Paris-bound fast train two years ago? Unfortunately for Clint Eastwood's latest, there really isn't. The director's risky decision to cast the three actual guys who pulled off the heroic act stands as the most novel and interesting aspect of the movie, which unfortunately is mostly comprised of banal, drama-free, quotidian scenes that merely reinforce the men's status as regular Joes who, one day, had the opportunity for greatness thrust upon them. The one big commercial hope for The 15:17 to Paris (the very title of which may prove a bit confusing for the down-home crowd) lies in capturing a portion of the huge American Sniper audience, as the new film has patriotic and religious angles that may hold significant appeal for viewers across Middle and Southern America.

Very much like Eastwood's last film, Sully, which pulled in $240 million worldwide (but also had a big star in Tom Hanks), this one pivots on a dramatic real-life incident in which individuals' competence and bravery come in handy in a transportation emergency to save a great many lives. The characters in question can simply say that they did what they were trained to do, but Eastwood is clearly most interested in the innate instincts of men who don't freak out, have qualms or second thoughts; they're just naturally wired to do the right thing and have the wherewithal to do so.

This is a genuinely appealing trait, albeit one that culturally is little-regarded currently, perhaps only as a World War II generation concept that became tarnished with Vietnam and all that came after. But Eastwood has lately tapped into it very effectively, finding the heroic in everyday people who, simply put, rise to the occasion.

Unfortunately, what does not rise to the occasion here is the screenplay by first-timer Dorothy Blyskal, which is based on the book authored by the three participants along with Jeffrey E. Stern. Virtually every sequence exists only to convey simple exposition; there are no internal dynamics, complexities, nuances, character revelations, left-field humor or, above all, dramatic conflicts within scenes. The storytelling consists of individual building blocks methodically placed, one at a time, next to or on top of others, on the road leading to the ultimate destination of the train, which is alluded to in several quick foreshadowing cuts to the heavily armed terrorist commencing his aggression.

The early-going is as simplistic as a comic book. Initial scenes have middle school pals Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos (kid actors William Jennings and Bryce Gheisar) getting into mild trouble at school (for swearing, being late, etc.), repeatedly being sent to the principal's office and generally underperforming at school. Both have devoutly religious single moms, one of whom, furious at a critical school official, unleashes the unfathomable line, “My God is bigger than your statistics!”

Along the way they acquire a new pal, Anthony Sadler (Paul-Mikel Williams), who's black and a little hipper and cooler than they are. They play war in the woods and goof around, but the one thing Spencer is really into at an early age is guns. In another movie, this might be a scary thing — he's got an unusually large arsenal, including a powerful hunting rifle — but here it's seen as normal and healthy. When Spencer asks Anthony if he wants to go hunting, the latter equivocates and says, “Black people don't really hunt.”

Anthony soon moves on, as does Alek, and before long, the real guys are playing themselves. Spencer gets menial work, but what he really wants to do is join the Air Force. Unfortunately, he's already chubbed out to where he physically resembles Vincent D'Onofrio's private in Full Metal Jacket, so he whips himself into shape and emerges as formidably soldier-like.

Unavoidably, however, everything in the film's mid-section is just filler, marking time until the big event. The three buds keep in touch into their early 20s and, in the summer of 2016 — Spencer, now in the Air Force; Alek, who's spent time in the Oregon National Guard; and Cal State student Anthony — they arrange to meet for a quick summer spin through Europe.

Morphing into travelogue mode, the film all but comes to a dead halt here. The guys do Rome, Venice and Berlin; hit bars and discos; and meet a girl or two, but nothing happens. Really — nothing happens at all; there's no drama, interesting talk, disagreements or anything of consequence, just scenery and a few beers that do nothing but act as filler until the guys at the last minute decide to go head for Amsterdam instead of Spain. Along the way, the still religiously inclined Spencer occasionally mentions that he sometimes feels that there must “some greater purpose” to life, but he can't yet imagine what it is.

The big scene aboard the titular train is smartly, alertly and coherently handled. Somehow, the boys are able to move up to first class and, after an ominous moment or two, the terrorist emerges from a bathroom, shirtless and bedecked with weapons. He shoots and seriously wounds one man; when Spencer boldly marches straight up the aisle at him, Ayoub (Ray Corasini) points his attack rifle at him and pulls the trigger, but it jams. What are the chances of that? Perhaps divine providence, in Spencer's book.

In the event, Spencer takes him down and, despite receiving some grievous knife wounds, effectively hog-ties him, with his pals providing crucial assistance. Spencer's other big contribution is saving the life of the man who was shot in the neck. It's all over in a matter of minutes; once the train arrives at the next station, the authorities take the wannabe mass killer away and the three Americans are on their way to Paris and the Elysee Palace, where French president Francois Hollande extols their valor and presents them with the Legion of Honor at considerable length in a sequence neatly pieced together from real and recreated footage.

Eastwood's main achievement here lies in trusting his hunch that the young men could handle playing themselves onscreen, with an acceptable naturalness and without self-consciousness. This they do, without a false note. But if you stand this next to any of director's other war or military-oriented films — notably American Sniper, Letters From Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Heartbreak Ridge — this one unavoidably looks like a private compared to a top officer.

Production company: Malpaso
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikel Williams, Thomas Lennon, P.J. Byrne, Tony Hale
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, Jeffrey E. Stern
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Tim Moore, Kristina Rivera, Jessica Meier
Executive producer: Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: Kevin Ishioka
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editor: Blu Murray
Music: Christian Jacob
Casting: Geoffrey Miclat

Rated PG-13, 94 minutes