“The 15:17 to Paris” is a movie about ordinary American heroes that stars ordinary American heroes. About 15 minutes of the film concerns the actual heroics. The rest is . . . ordinary.
To be specific, Clint Eastwood has dramatized the Aug. 21, 2015, Thalys train attack — in which three Americans, among others, successfully fought and subdued a heavily armed lone terrorist — by casting the young men as themselves. The result is one of the weakest entries in the director’s legendary filmography, but it’s not really the actors’ fault. The movie is simply padded beyond all reasonable sense with flashbacks and a strikingly banal tour of European capitals.
Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler were friends from their California childhood who were coming off the end of a multi-country bum-around. Stone was an Air Force airman first class who’d been training in Portugal, Skarlatos was a National Guard specialist just back from Afghanistan, and Sadler was a civilian hanging with his friends.
The film presents Stone as first among equals, perhaps because of his backstory — a childhood square peg who remade himself into a gentle giant of a rescue and survival specialist — and perhaps because Stone has an energy and an earnestness that feels reasonably close to acting. “15:17 to Paris” spends an inordinate amount of time in the boys’ youths, the better to villainize the teachers who diagnose Spencer and Alek with ADD and to celebrate their single mothers (Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, respectively) and their plainspoken faith. In one of the film’s few nuanced touches, the character’s sincere religiousness is contrasted with the hidebound, soul-killing bureaucracy of the boys’ Christian school.
There are dissonances, too. A scene in which young Spencer, a war aficionado, impresses his friends by pulling out a huge arsenal of toy rifles, may push the wrong visual and emotional buttons for anyone but NRA diehards. When Anthony (who’s black) has to run home after an afternoon of war games in the woods, and his two friends playfully shoot him in the back — let’s just say that the resonances are probably not what the filmmaker intended.
After “15:17 to Paris” shifts to the modern day and brings on the real-life trio as themselves, the movie takes a turn for the remarkably dull. We follow the characters on an extended tour of Rome, Venice, Berlin, and Amsterdam, and — trust me on this — it is exactly as exciting as watching someone else’s vacation slides. The dialogue itself runs along the lines of “We’ve got to get some gelato!” and, upon beholding the bronze horses of Saint Mark’s Basilica, in Venice, “Hold your horses!”
The aim, clearly, is to show the healthy normality of men who will soon be called to draw upon their deepest reserves with split-second reflexes. And perhaps trained actors could have brought a focus and definition to these scenes that might reflect insightfully on what is to come. But while Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos come across as absolutely decent guys, they have a slackness of presentation that renders the European scenes deadly as drama. (We will note only in passing the presence of a Bro-Cam™ that apparently has to pan down to the rear end of almost every attractive woman the heroes meet.)
There’s precedent for this kind of stunt casting, of course. Audie Murphy turned his World War II heroics into a solid, if limited, Hollywood career. And certainly part of us wants to honor the people who triumph over an awful event by celebrating them rather than pale studio stand-ins. But professionalism in one field doesn’t always translate to another, and the qualities needed to respond to real-world emergencies rarely overlap with those needed to retell them for posterity.
The final act of “15:17 to Paris,” on the train of the title, finally delivers the goods and brings the three to the larger destiny that Stone has earlier spoken of as feeling “catapulted toward.” Eastwood frames the climax as effective action and multinational jingoism, with the three ultimately accepting the French Legion of Honor alongside a Frenchman, Mark Moogalian (also playing himself), and a Brit, Chris Norman (likewise). You know who the good guys are and you definitely know who the bad guy is: the swarthy fellow (Ray Korasani) who’s given no history and hardly even a close-up and who exists, essentially, as generic terrorist evil: Them. (Perhaps he felt he had a destiny, too. Perhaps there’s drama in contrasting him with Stone. But never mind.)
At the screening I attended, the audience applauded when the credits rolled, but more, it seems, to honor the men who risked their own lives to save the lives of others than this awkward, flat-footed attempt to re-create their bravery.
THE 15:17 TO PARIS
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Jeffrey E. Stern. Starring Sadler, Skarlatos, Stone. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 94 minutes. PG-13 (bloody images, violence, some suggestive material, drug references, and language)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.