The 15:17 to Paris: Slow Trainwreck to Nowhere

The answer to the burning question, why would Warner Bros. release Clint Eastwood’s follow-up to American Sniper in the dead of winter off-season has been answered: It stinks.

Based on a true incident in 2015 when three American tourists, two of whom were active duty military personnel, overpowered a lone, but heavily armed, would-be terrorist, The 15:17 to Paris actually stars the real-life participants who prevented a disaster. This misstep alone dooms the movie, although there’s ample blame to go around. Although one would like to credit this train wreck at least with good intentions, a lingering suspicion that this is an exploitative marketing gimmick is unavoidable.

Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone are heroes, and it by no means demeans or denigrates their courage to point out the obvious: they aren’t actors. It does bear mentioning, however, that it both demeans and denigrates the actor’s craft to presume that putting the people who lived historical events in a movie is going to produce satisfactory results. It seldom does, and the thin track record of movies that have tried is not illustrious. Sports legends Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali all played themselves in movies and the results weren’t impressive. World War II hero Audie Murphy did play himself in a movie based on his own memoirs, To Hell and Back, and actually went on to a two-decade career in the movies. He’s the exception that proves the rule. He could actually act.

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Courtesy Warner Bros. 2018

But The 15:17 to Paris isn’t just derailed by its non-actor stars. It also has a non-script by rookie writer Dorothy Blyskal, a former production secretary and assistant making her feature writing debut here. Based on a nonfiction book authored by Skarlatos, Sadler and Stone with journalist Jeffrey Stern, the script is a slipshod, sloppily constructed mess that wants to do anything but provide the audience with a suspense thriller, fact-based or otherwise, that might, God forbid, entertain an audience. Most of the screen time is devoted to the childhood travails of the three main characters, who all first cross paths at a Christian school that appears to have been run by short-tempered, moral hypocrites. Ironically, most of these scenes have the feel of low-budget, moral agenda-intensive independent productions financed by various religious organizations, despite the fact the school comes off like Golgotha Prep.

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Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures 2018

A scene in which the young Spencer shows Alek his bedroom arsenal, which features a lot of toy guns, along with a real shotgun, evokes unpleasant recollections of any number of recent school shootings, and it’s frankly amazing a director of Eastwood’s experience didn’t get this.

The dialogue, much of which is obviously improvised, is awful. If there’s anything worse than actors improvising, it’s amateurs. Whether the script was just thin or whether the non-actor stars couldn’t deliver lines, the result is tortuous scene after tortuous scene with the annoying, manufactured feel of reality TV. Token lines are seeded throughout to ineffectually foreshadow the events on the train, which nonetheless still basically comes out of nowhere, despite clumsily edited-in glimpses of the climactic action. The audience is still going to be wondering when the hell we’re going to get on the train. To provide any drama or suspense with this type of story structure would have taken far better writing. Movies seldom rise above their scripts, and this certainly doesn’t.

Missing is the seemingly effortless craftsmanship that’s been a hallmark of Clint Eastwood’s later work as a director. Certainly this effort, which looks like it belongs on A&E or TLC cable, bears little resemblance to the masterly, uncompromising but restrained American Sniper.  And embarrassingly in the #MeToo era, Eastwood doesn’t pass up an opportunity to showcase a leering close-up of every female derriere in a tight dress he can work into the movie. This sort obvious, gratuitous sexism may seem at home in the Fast & Furious franchise, but seems out of place and inappropriate here.

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Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures 2018

Ray Corasani plays the terrorist on the train, who is depicted as a surly, one-dimensional cliché, with neither depth nor motive. A video game, or even a Chuck Norris movie, would have done better. Veteran actresses Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer bring some welcome sincerity, and sorry to say, talent, to the proceedings of the single mothers of Stone and Skarlatos, but are ultimately wasted and they aren’t enough to upgrade 15:17’s economy ticket status.

The 15.17 to Paris clocks in at a tidy hour and thirty-four minutes. It should have moved like a runaway train, but audiences are likely to want to get out and push.

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