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Despite creative premise, viewers should miss ‘The 15:17 To Paris’

Eastwood’s latest film authentically depicts terrorist conflict, surprisingly bores

“The 15:17 To Paris,” Clint Eastwood’s new film about the true story of three Americans who stopped a terrorist attack on a train in the summer of 2015, rests on a central conceit. Instead of turning to professional actors, Eastwood cast the real men to play themselves. It’s audacious, and it could have worked, too, because you never know what you’re going to get with Eastwood. His movies are hard to judge and harder to read. “American Sniper,” for example, works as either a propagandist salute to a mass murderer or a complex character study of a man challenged by war depending on who you talk to, or maybe just on which way the wind’s blowing.

Eastwood himself is no less inscrutable. He’s the man who yelled at a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, but he’s also the man who directed great movies before and after that strange night, from 1992’s “Unforgiven” to 2016’s “Sully.” Alas, his latest effort feels more like the work of an old man who scolds furniture than the one responsible for a handful of American classics.

It begins with a man walking through a train station, rolling a suitcase behind him and eventually boarding a train. He gives the camera a blank-faced stare before the doors close and the title card appears. If you know the premise, you can probably guess: We’ve met the terrorist.

Don’t let this trick you into thinking “The 15:17 To Paris” is an action movie. After the credits, the film flashes back to the middle school days of our three heroes. Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone — played, as children, by Bryce Gheisar and William Jennings — are best friends but social outcasts. Spencer complains that no one gets him and that he doesn’t fit in. Alek replies, in a conspicuously pleading and raw tenor for a between-classes conversation, “I get you! You fit in with me!”

Eastwood is a famously hands-off director, and the approach does him no favors here. The young actors, including Paul-Mikél Williams as our third protagonist, Anthony Sadler, are shockingly bad, giving performances straight out of an eighth-grade play where the chief imperative is “Don’t mumble!” Nevertheless, the three form a friendship that will last into their adult lives. An early botched attempt at emotional connection comes after an airsoft battle, scored to plaintive guitar music, when the three lie on the forest floor and wax poetic about the “brotherhood” of war.

Flash-forward to high school, when the three men are now played by themselves. Eastwood nailed the casting continuity: The grown men are just as bad at acting as their younger counterparts. To be fair, all the actors — “actors” — are saddled by Dorothy Blyskal’s tin-eared, meandering script.

Living nondescript middle-class lives, Alek and Spencer want to do something different and bigger than themselves, so they decide to join the military — Alek the National Guard and Spencer the Air Force. Alek is stationed in Afghanistan and Spencer in the Azores Islands near Portugal, while Anthony stays stateside to attend college. Still fast friends, the three decide to meet up in Europe for a cross-continental tour. Spencer and Anthony get together first, touring Italy while Alek meets a girlfriend in Germany.

For a while, the movie becomes the most benign, soporific travel documentary you’ve ever seen. Spencer and Anthony walk around, take selfies, and get gelato — Spencer goes for hazelnut, in case you want to know the flavor of champions. They marvel at the Colosseum — “It’s so big!” one of them observes — and tour Venice with a girl they meet on a boat who apparently had no plans of her own. Eventually, Anthony and Spencer meet up with Alek in Amsterdam, where the three of them grind with strangers in a nightclub and wake up with impressively unconvincing hangovers.

It’s hard to overstate just how inane the whole travel sequence is. Other than a moment when Spencer speaks of his feeling that life is “catapulting him” towards some greater purpose, none of it has any bearing on, well, anything.

Finally, we get to the train attack, but the hour and change that precedes it is so resolutely uninvolving that the big moment feels like an anticlimax. And while that does make it ideal counterprogramming to the weekend’s other big release, “Fifty Shades Freed,” it’s a crushing blow to “The 15:17 To Paris.”

It’s a real shame, because as a thought experiment, Eastwood’s idea is intriguing. Stopping a bad guy on a train is a classic action movie idea — “The Commuter” just used a version of it a month ago — so casting the real people who really did stop a bad guy on a train presents a unique opportunity to consider cinema, heroism and the intersection of the two.

But “The 15:17 To Paris” doesn’t have a self-reflexive bone in its woefully inert body. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with straightforward drama. But here’s a free tip: Hire actors next time. They’re pretty good at that stuff.


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