15:17 to Paris, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/09/18 04:15:57
Thanks to one of those unfortunate scheduling snafus that crops up from time to time, the sole press screenings of Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 To Paris” and “Fifty Shades Freed,” the theoretically long-awaited climax to the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, ended up taking place at the exact same time, obligating local critics to choose between looking at the Clint or looking at the—well, you know. For most, the choice was relatively easy since even though Eastwood’s output of late has been a bit on the uneven side, he has still made more than his share of stone-cold classics and his willingness to experiment at an age when most filmmakers become increasingly entrenched in the tried-and-true, even when those experiments end up going sideways, promised something more interesting than the wooden acting and tepid stabs at “kink” that have distinguished the “Fifty Shades” films so far. Adding to the lure of the Eastwood film are the unusual circumstances surrounding its existence; in recounting the story of the attempted 2015 attack on an Amsterdam-to-Paris high-speed train by a man named Ayoub El-Khazani, a suspected terrorist armed with a box cutter, an Ak-47 and hundreds of rounds of ammo, that was thwarted when three young American friends—Airman First Class Spencer Stone, National Guard Specialist Alek Skarlatos and college student Anthony Sadler—managed to overwhelm him when his rifle jammed, Eastwood elected to eschew the traditional casting route by having the three real-life childhood pals play themselves. (A couple of Frenchmen and a British businessmen also helped to subdue the attacker as well.) On paper, it sounds like a fascinating conceit for a film of this sort, though maybe not as audacious as the hype might suggest, but when it was all over, I know that I wasn’t the only one thinking that perhaps I went to the wrong movie after all. “Fifty Shades Freed” probably would have been terrible but at least its flaws could be expected and even rationalized based on the failings of its predecessors while “The 15:17 to Paris” is so bewilderingly terrible that all you can do is scratch your head in disbelief while quietly admiring the still-potent strength of Eastwood’s power in the industry that would allow him to make a film that is virtually indistinguishable from the instant and usually dreadful made-for-TV movies torn from the headlines that were all the rage a couple of decades ago.Like Eastwood’s previous film, “Sully,” he is faced with the dilemma of recounting a true incident that a.) only lasted for a couple of minutes in total and b.) has an outcome that everyone already knows. To get around this, Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal have elected to follow the lives of the three men from their childhoods leading up to that fateful train ride and examine how they came to be the people willing to put themselves in harm’s way without a moment’s hesitation. When we first see them in 2005, Spencer and Alex are troublemaking grade schoolers being raised by loving if exasperated single mothers (Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer) and whose only real pleasure comes from indulging in war fantasies with an arsenal of toy guns. They soon meet up with the equally rambunctious Anthony and the three are inseparable until they are finally separated—Anthony leaves their Christian school to go to public school while the principal orders Alex to be taken away from his mother in order to go live with his father. Years later, Spencer is slacking through life when he is suddenly inspired to join the Air Force to bring some kind of meaning and purpose to his life—it helps to a certain extent but when he doesn’t land the super heroic position that he wants (lousy bureaucrats and their willingness to bar people from certain jobs because of minor things like a total lack of depth perception), his work in the service becomes as lackadaisical as it was out of it. Meanwhile, Alek is having a somewhat more successful career serving in Afghanistan and Anthony goes off to school at California State University. The three eventually reunite for a backpacking trip through Europe that takes Spencer and Anthony to Venice and Alek to Germany before they meet up in Amsterdam for a wild night before boarding the fateful train to Paris the next day.
The concept of having real-life people playing themselves in films reenacting their own experiences is not a radically new idea—people ranging from war hero Audie Murphy (“To Hell and Back”) to sports legends Jackie Robinson (“The Jackie Robinson Story”) and Muhammed Ali (“The Greatest”) have done it in the past. Granted, those guys may not have been acting in any traditional sense and, with the possible exception of Ali, you would not have necessarily wanted to see them playing roles other than themselves (though Murphy did go onto to an acting career that lasted for a couple of decades) but enough of their personality and charisma shone through enough so that they were able to capture and hold the attention of audiences for a couple of hours. The problem here is that while one cannot deny the bravery and heroism of Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler, it is equally impossible to overlook the fact that they simply are not very compelling on the big screen. As interview subjects on television, they are engaging enough but they are not remotely cut out for the demands of carrying a major motion picture on their shoulders, not even one with a story that they have literally lived through. Their line readings are stiff and their interactions, either with each other or with the professional actors in the cast like Fischer and Greer, are unconvincing. I know these guys are not real actors and I am trying to cut them as much slack as I can but their come across so awkwardly here that they end up undercutting the very sense of reality that their presence was presumably meant to instill—frankly, the film might have been more effective and felt more realistic if Eastwood had just cast good but little-known actors in the parts instead. (In case you think I am being unduly harsh, consider the fact that upon entering the screening of the film, all critics were shown a blurb written by Warner Brothers that underlined the fact that we were seeing the real guys and not just a trio of actors, presumably to get them to look more favorably upon a gamble that ultimately didn’t quite pay off.)
And yet, even if Eastwood had employed real actors who could have properly carried a film, “The 15:17 to Paris” most likely still would have floundered because of the severe flaws in the storytelling. This film marks Eastwood’s latest take on the concept of American heroism and what it takes and takes out of a person whose actions land them the title of hero, whether they feel they deserve it or not—this is a theme that he has explored at length in the likes of “Flags of our Fathers,” “American Sniper” and “Sully.” Those films, while varying wildly in quality (I thought that “Sully” was quite good, “American Sniper” was quite dreadful and “Flags of our Fathers” was quite boring), at least had something of interest to say on the topic, which is more than can be said here. Instead, first-time screenwriter Blyskal has contributed a screenplay that is as stilted and unconvincing as the three leads. (The opening scene in which concerned mothers Greer and Fischer confront a mealy-mouthed teacher who wants to put their troublemaking kids on medication is as poorly written as any scene in a putatively serious-minded film in recent memory.) Her attempts to replicate the lives of Stone and Skarlatos never once have the feeling of authenticity and there are too many moments—such as Stone speculating at length about whether he and his friends are being pushed towards some greater purpose by the forces of fate—that find her trying to spell out the film’s themes in the most awkward manner imaginable. (Sadler’s story, by comparison, gets much less screen time, possibly because he doesn’t have a military background—odd since that almost makes his actions seem even braver in hindsight.)
As for Eastwood, this is one of those films that he seems to have taken on because of a gap in his schedule and a desire to keep busy rather than out of any burning need to tell this particular story. His direction seems sloppy and unfocused at times (he even forgets to include the moment in which the three friends finally reunite in Amsterdam after all their time apart, instead just cutting jarringly to a nightclub where the three are suddenly together partying the night away), many of his casting decisions are questionable (how to explain the presence of Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale and Jaleel “Urkel” White as members of the faculty of the kids’ school) and once the story shifts to the European trip, the whole thing suddenly bogs down into a seemingly endless travelogue that is about as exciting and dramatically propulsive as watching someone else’s home movies. Even though, at 94 minutes, this is Eastwood’s shortest film to date as a director, it paradoxically feels like one of his longest and draggiest works. The only time that the film comes alive is, perhaps inevitably, during the attack sequence itself, which Eastwood stages in a manner that effectively mirrors what must have been a harrowing and chaotic event for all concerned. (Perhaps realizing this, he sprinkles little bits of it arbitrarily throughout the film, as though to assure audiences “Don’t worry—the good stuff is coming.”)Although somewhat interesting from a conceptual perspective, “The 15:17 to Paris” is a failure in pretty much every other area. If Eastwood really wanted to use this story as a way of exploring heroism in this day and age and further wanted to include the real-life subjects as well, perhaps he should have gone the other way instead by starting with the attack and going forward to see those involved grappling with the ramifications of their instinctive actions, ranging from the Frenchman who refused the honors offered him for his participation for fear that his life would be put in danger if his identity became known to the notoriety Stone faced after being himself stabbed in an incident in a nightclub a couple of months after the train attack to a veteran actor-director coming to them with an offer to bring their story to the screen with a novel casting choice. Instead, he has come up with a clunky insta-movie that is startlingly slight and unfocused for a man of his talents and one of his weakest and most disappointing directorial efforts to date.
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