The 15:17 to Paris
The 15:17 to Paris, Clint Eastwood’s latest look at American heroism, carries the torch of The Jackie Robinson Story and To Hell and Back by casting non-actors to portray themselves in dramatized retellings of their notable acts.
The incident at hand is the titular August 21, 2015, train ride, aboard which 20something U.S. tourists Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone prevented a terrorist attack.
It’s an intriguing stunt, and one that hasn’t been attempted in some time, but the script by first-time feature screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal is structured in such a lackadaisical, largely plot-free way that its existence — at least in this form — is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Rather than merely reenact the events of that fateful day, Blyskal looks back at the young men’s lives, starting with their meeting as Sacramento middle schoolers in 2005, moving chronologically through apparent key events in their lives with an emphasis on Stone.
Brief teases of the terrorist attack unfurling and Stone readying himself to spring into action hint at the inevitable future, but the story keeps frustratingly cutting back to the build-up, which isn’t nearly as compelling.
In their junior high days, only Paul-Mikél Williams’ Anthony seems to realize he’s in a movie, though the others’ shortcomings are somewhat compensated by the amusing casting of funny women Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer as their single moms, a trend that continues with Thomas Lennon, P.J. Byrne and — not a misprint — Tony Hale as members of their Christian school’s faculty.
Once The 15:17 to Paris advances to high school and the actual guys take over, they do what they can with the material and, with the exception of Skarlatos, occasionally deliver charisma beyond their church play amateurism.
Despite their dramatic shortcomings, the film likely wouldn’t be elevated by casting professional actors in their place. It needs the stunt to have a reason to exist, and without a better narrative in place, its appeal would decrease significantly without the curiosity of witnessing a retread of the three real friends’ journey.
It also doesn’t help that much of the film’s style echoes the flat “gaze upon thy patriotism and be in awe” direction that frequently marred Eastwood’s American Sniper. But as it moves beyond the military ennui of Stone and Skarlatos — largely ignoring Sadler’s college-era exploits for no discernible reason, other than they don’t involve the armed services — there’s genuine entertainment value in the pals’ European vacation that preceds the locomotive showdown.
Once the trio reach the train and the events are allowed to proceed without interruption, the film at last achieves its purpose, playing out through tense, no-fuss filmmaking. Yet even when seeing their bravery occur as close to the truth as possible has been achieved, there remains the sense that their story may have worked better as a short — or at least in a form that does more justice to their intertwined lives overall.
Grade: C-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Warner Bros.)