Synopsis – Three Americans discover a terrorist plot aboard a train while in France.
My Take – It sure is remarkable to see how Clint Eastwood even at an age of 87 seems so full of life and gun ho about every film he makes. This film marking his 36th entry in a nearly 50-year directing career that has produced some incredible artistic twists and turns, he takes on yet another tale of true-life heroism, something which he seems to have become fascinated in the last decade or so. Visualizing events of August 21, 2015 for the big screen, about how a terrorist’s attempt aboard the Thalys train bound for Paris was thwarted by three Americans – Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, who ultimately subdued the terrorist hereby saving the passenger’s lives. Even though as a director Eastwood is prone to casting Hollywood’s biggest stars for his film such Tom Hanks as a legendary pilot in Sully, Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, and Bradley Cooper as the famed marksman Chris Kyle in American Sniper, in order to carry out his heroism based vision, here, his decision to cast the actual three men as themselves in an unexpected stroke of daring, and in some ways quite noble. Having said that, the overall product is without a doubt one of the worst films I have seen in a while. As a filmmaker, Clint Eastwood has been known to be a story teller whose sensibilities are always intact, and his flicks have a streamlined numbness to them, which as a paying audience I always seem to enjoy, but here, though sounding extraordinary, his film is nothing more than a failed experiment, mainly as director Eastwood is meticulous in his efforts to illustrate just how boring and unexceptional these men are up until the moment they are called upon to be exceptional. There’s barely any action, and the acting is terrible, and almost like a navel-gazing indie film, except that it doesn’t even strive for profundity. It meanders for around 85 minutes or so, and gives us five minutes of poorly choreographed action, and then ends, just like that.
Based on the book ‘The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes‘ by Jeffrey E. Stern, the story follows Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler who after meeting each other in the principal’s office at their middle school became close friends mainly due to their penchant for warfare and guns. While Alek and Spencer who live with their God-loving single mothers (Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer), who support and believe in the best of their kids, often get reprimanded for their penchant to get in trouble, Anthony usually gets away with his talent of smooth talking . While the three get separated at some point during middle-school, they continued to remain friends even in their adulthood. As adults, Spencer joins into survival training in the military, while Alek joins the army in Afghanistan, as Anthony despite his low income seems satisfied just being at the home state. At some point, the three decide to go backpacking touring the European countries from Italy to Germany and then, the final tour going to Paris via the Thalys train. It’s aboard this train, these lifelong friends went from being self-proclaimed regular guys to globally honored heroes, as a gunman named Ayoub El-Khazzani (Ray Corasani), has also boarded with an assault rifle, a pistol, a box cutter and enough ammunition to kill every passenger on the train. It’s hard not to praise the three men who performed this act of courage and deserve all the honor they have received. They stood brave in the face of evil and terrorism and managed to prevent disaster, and casting them in this film was a lovely testament to their bravery, and it’s really unfortunate how bereft of entertainment value this film really is. The film acts more like a buddy adventure film for the better part of its run time, rather than the heroic thriller that was being advertised. It’s incredibly misguided and marks an unfortunate low point in Clint Eastwood‘s remarkable career. Sure, the film starts out strong, then begins to meanders in the second act, and then before you know it, it’s over! With the main events of the film held back until the last ten or so minutes it leaves roughly eighty minutes or so of dull, boring and bland exposition and set up, which show the trio grow into film archetypes: a joker (Sadler), a screw-up (Stone), and a straight-shooter (Skarlatos). Sadler attends college, and Skarlatos was on break from the National Guard in Afghanistan before the trio met. While director Eastwood dips into teasing the events of the attack, he mines a lot of backstory out of Stone: his troubles in school, demotions in the Air Force, his desire to be a jumper until eye troubles get in the way. Stone’s even seen working at a Jamba Juice.
He certainly has the richest arc – and comes across like an amiable, easy-going guy. But the rest of the film is mostly tedious, as a glorified mix of home films of Stone and Sadler being a tourist around European capitals and museums – a trip we weren’t even on. Jokes about selfie sticks and hangovers don’t make it any easier; classroom scenes with child actors who appear to have been given zero direction; clumsy digs at snobs on both sides of the Atlantic. The wooden writing doesn’t help and plagues the film with countless cringe moments throughout its run time. To director Clint Eastwood’s credit, he has the right ideas here – but the whole film feels wrong for its story, perhaps it’s the haphazard execution, or the slack pacing, or the fish-eyed thematic sidetracking, the iron-handed writing, distracting sitcom star casting, the weight of the film’s real-life leads or just the soggy life stories, ones that feel slightly tin-eared, and mawkishly similar to recent faith-based films. The film also has all the subtlety of a military-recruitment video. As kids, the trio love to play with toy guns and run around in the woods but struggle to conform to the rules of the strict Christian school they attend. As an adult, Stone lives a listless life until he decides to get in shape and apply to join the Air Force, prompting a long workout montage and a series of scenes detailing the tests one must pass to become a soldier. Skarlatos is also in the military, but director Eastwood doesn’t delve as much into his upbringing, having clearly decided that Stone is the most intriguing member of the trio. With Eastwood in the director’s chair, one comes to accept the bum notes and imperfections because of his ability to powerfully articulate a theme and there is a gem buried somewhere inside this film, which while lingering follows real-life friends all the way to the fateful afternoon they boarded an express train to Paris. As for much hyped scenes on the train, a description of underwhelming is being far, far too kind. Not only are some scenes extremely hard to believe and the little amount of action haphazardly shot and hard to follow. Like I mentioned before director Eastwood’s decision to use the actual men to play themselves was perhaps a brave and bold move. I mean, who’s going to play them better than themselves? That said, it doesn’t quite pay off. These men are not actors and it shows. Most of their scenes are full of improvisation and ad-libbed nuances. What’s worse is that they fail to fully emote and show deadening emotion when needed. Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos could have easily served better working as consultants for the film to ensure authenticity. Mark Moogalian, a 51-year Frenchman with U.S. citizenship, also appears as himself, unnervingly re-enacting his own shooting in the neck, while Christopher Norman, a British businessman who helped, also appears as himself. Moogalian and Norman barely speak, and are only loosely introduced. Among the few actors in the film, actresses Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer are good as always, only if they were handed some better dialogue. However, the younger versions of the leads, played by William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar and Paul-Mikél Williams are alright. On the whole, ‘The 15:17 to Paris‘ is a poorly executed tale of genuine heroism which ends up being nothing more than a rare Eastwood misfire.
Directed – Clint Eastwood
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 94 minutes