By one cosmic yardstick, the three American tourists who foiled a terrorist attack on a 2015 Amsterdam-to-Paris train were in exactly the right place at the right time: They acted when they had to, wrestling an armed gunman to the floor and preventing untold carnage. Those same three Americans don’t act in ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ – they can’t act, because even though Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlato and Anthony Sadler have been cast as themselves, they’re not actors. They’re at best beefy twentysomethings with muscle memory. Dramatically inert and flatter than a buzz cut, the movie ends up diminishing their moment of heroism by turning it into a defiantly amateurish piece of junior-high-grade theatrics (the film asks the impossible of people who have already achieved greatness), as if to say: Reality doesn’t need to be gussied up. Alas, it does, and saying so doesn’t make you disrespectful.
Anything that could have been done to shift focus away from these bros – who come across as likeable but blank interlopers in their own story – should have been considered. Instead, the paint-by-numbers screenplay by Dorothy Blyskal (mainly a production assistant prior to this job) emphasizes their deficiencies. It leans heavily on cringe-inducing moments of obviousness, setting up the boyhood friends as detention-prone loners who prefer playing wargames in the woods. You get no less than two parent-teacher conferences in the first 20 minutes alone, both of which end in sassy you-don’t-know-my-son walkouts. (Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer, as the mothers, try to speed things along.) Shifting to the adult Stone, Skarlato and Sadler, the movie piles on an hour of vacation travelogue in Rome, Venice and Amsterdam, during which beers are quaffed, selfies are taken and European women are ogled (but never disrespected or even touched). The profanity-free squareness is close to excruciating: you won’t believe how boring it is partying with real-life heroes.
Say what you will about director Clint Eastwood’s onscreen rectitude as a gun-toting icon, he’s never been a safe filmmaker. Just as only Nixon could open China, only Eastwood could smuggle paralyzing doubts into the underrated ‘American Sniper’; his war films ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ are remarkably critical. ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ won’t help his defenders. Perversely, you wait (and wait) for the train attack, hinted at in flurries of flash-forwards. It’s over in an instant: competently staged but coolly played. Eastwood makes the film feel like a rote assignment: an act of patriotic duty trying to pass as drama. Already we’ve heard several times, ominously, about the 'greater purpose' these guys are 'catapulting' toward (seriously, the script is that dull-witted). Even if it weren’t already set on a track, the movie has only one way forward: a straight line into mundanity.