Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Judy Greer, Thomas Lennon, Jenna Fischer, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikel Williams.
In August 2015 a heavily armed terrorist named Ayoub El-Khazzani boarded the titular express train from Amsterdam to Paris with the intent of opening fire on the passengers. He had over 500 rounds of ammunition in his possession. Luckily three American servicemen, and life-long friends who had been on a once in a lifetime holiday in Europe, managed to tackle the gunman and thus avert a potential tragedy. With these events still fresh in the mind, two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Clint Eastwood has used this true story of courage as the basis for his 36th film.
As with his recent Sully, Eastwood seems drawn towards this true tale of ordinary people becoming unlikely heroes. And it also continues his fascination with military matters, an interest that has shaped films like Heartbreak Ridge, Flags Of Our Fathers, and even American Sniper. At a brisk 94 minutes this is one of the shortest films in Eastwood’s storied career as a filmmaker, a four decades long career that has consistently produced some modern classics like Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, etc. The 15:17 To Paris is also is one of the slightest in his canon and lacks the usual depth and gravitas of his best work. He employs a lean, stripped back approach here, but Eastwood still manages to ramp up the gung-ho American values. And the scenes involving the terrorist attack are quite tense and exciting, although it lacks the urgency that Paul Greengrass brought to his superb United 93.
But the terrorist incident takes up only about 20 minutes of the film, and seems almost anti-climactic. The rest of the film is dedicated to the backstory of the three heroes and their unhappy childhood. And in a risky casting move that doesn’t quite come off, Eastwood has cast the three heroes as themselves. Although it may lend authenticity to the material, their performances sometimes seem a little awkward and stilted.
Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler all met in a Christian elementary school in Sacramento and became firm friends, drawn together by a love of playing war games. The three were also misfits who were always getting in trouble at school. But they ended up in the military, with Sadler becoming a National Guardsman and Stone joining the air force where he became a medic, while Skarlatos studied at college. As boys, the three are played by new comer William Jennings as Stone, Bryce Gheisar (from Wonder) as Skarlatos, and Paul-Mikel Williams (from tv series Westworld) as Sadler. The three all give natural and engaging performances. Their coming of age story is quite interesting and contains many of the usual tropes of the genre. Of the three though, it is Stone who has the more interesting character arc and he seems to get the most screen time.
The film has been shot by Eastwood’s regular cinematographer Tom Stern, and the middle section is beautiful to look at as it unfolds more like a travelogue as the men travel through some picturesque European cities. But this portion is also rather dull. The film has been written by first time writer Dorothy Blyskal, and based on the book written by the three men and journalist Jeffery Stern. However, the narrative doesn’t follow a traditional linear structure, and much of the dialogue is tone-deaf and woodenly delivered by the non-professional cast. Blyskal also seems to have taken some liberties with the story for dramatic purposes.
The supporting cast includes Judy Greer as Stone’s mother and Thomas Lennon, playing it straight, as Akers, their hard-nosed school principal.
There is no denying that the actions of the three men were heroic and selfless, but one just wishes that they deserved better than this strangely inert, mediocre and often amateurish looking film tribute.