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 Runs Off the Rails 

Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood
Warner Brothers
 105 Minutes
Directed byClint Eastwood
Starring: Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos 
The 15:17 to Paris

Two years ago, director Clint Eastwood celebrated the real life heroism of a U.S. Airways pilot, Sully Sullenberger, in his last film, Sully. He now tries to duplicate that feat by telling the story of three young Americans who subdued and captured a heavily armed terrorist on a crowded commuter train. While the acts of heroism and Eastwood’s depictions of them may be comparable, The 15:17 to Paris, is nowhere near as good a movie as Sully was.


In making both movies, Eastwood faced the same problem. As thrilling as Sully’s actions in safely bringing his stricken plane down in the Hudson River were, they took only 20 minutes to depict in riveting detail. Similarly, the entire hijacking episode in The 15:17to Paris takes up about 20 minutes of screen time, leaving Eastwood and his screenwriters with over an hour of time to fill in order to make a feature length motion picture. In Sully, Eastwood had the benefit of a modern day legendary actor, Tom Hanks, playing the pilot and an experienced screenwriter. Unfortunately, due to his own casting decision, Eastwood is working with the three actual heroes, who play themselves, as his actors, as well as a screenwriter, Dorothy Blyskal, whose experience seems to be that of being a production secretary on a couple of movies. That lack of experience, both onscreen and off, shows.


The 15:17 to Paris is based on a memoir of the event by the three friends, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos. The movie attempts to show, not only how the thwarted hijacking occurred, but what led the three friends to be in the right place at the right time. The story starts in junior high school, where Stone and Skarlatos are frequent troublemakers, getting sent to the principal’s office on numerous occasions, although the extent of their troublemaking is generally limited to staying out in the hall a few seconds too long after the bell rings. During one of their meetings with the principal, they meet another cutup, Sadler, and the three become friends, remaining so even after Sadler and Skarlatos move away from Sacramento, CA.


Fast forward a few years, and Stone is working at a smoothie shop when a chance meeting with a Marine recruiter convinces him to join the Air Force so that he can help others. The somewhat portly Stone loses a good bit of weight and enlists, but his efforts to become an Air Force paramedic are thwarted when his physical reveals that he has poor depth perception. He loses out on another assignment because he oversleeps one day, and has a relatively uneventful military career until he hooks up with Sadler and Skarlatos on a European vacation.


If the details of Stone’s Air Force career are somewhat sketchy, the post-junior high school record of Sadler is virtually non-existent and that of Skarlatos little better. The latter has a girlfriend in Berlin whom he meets before joining Sadler and Stone for the last leg of their trip, a train ride from Amsterdam to Paris. Unknown to them, one of the other passengers is a Moroccan who boards the train in Brussels and then goes into a bathroom so that he can arm himself to the teeth.


The 15:17 to Paris is in almost equal parts (1) a thrilling fight sequence on a train, (2) a marginally decent albeit too brief story of a young man trying to find himself in life, (3) a subpar story of three junior  high students who aren’t nearly as remarkable as the film makes them out to be, and (4) an atrocious home movie about a European vacation. The train attack sequence is vintage Eastwood, and he made the bold decision to have the other actual participants (a French couple and an Englishman) in the episode, with the obvious exception of the terrorist, play themselves. What follows is awkward at times, as the real event must have been, but with an intensity that a typical staged action sequence would probably have lacked. Sadly, the audience has to sit through an hour of far worse material before getting to that sequence.


Taking the worst first, the section of The 15:17 to Paris immediately before the train sequence shows the three friends having a very unremarkable European trip and behaving exactly like typical tourists. So, the audience sees them admiring the Roman Coliseum and Hitler’s Bunker, taking a girl they meet out to dinner, going to Amsterdam on the advice of an elderly hippie (presumably for the entertainment), and, while in Amsterdam, getting drunk and partying in a disco. In other words, they act just as we would expect three guys on vacation to act. And, while it was undoubtedly fun for them to experience (except for the hangover the audience also gets to see), watching it is the exact same viewing experience as watching most people’s home videos of their vacations, in other words, incredibly boring. In a better movie, this sequence would have been depicted by means of a minute-long video montage. Here, the audience, which already knows what is to come thanks to some flash forwards in the early parts of the movie, has to sit and agonize.


The first two sections of The 15:17 to Paris are somewhat better than the inane travelogue but are still rather superfluous. While the boys did not fare well in the Christian school they attended, it’s hard to pinpoint anything that would have led them to become the men they turned into, other than a not-all-that-unusual fascination with firearms. Further, the one really shocking development, in which Skarlatos’ absentee father regains custody and moves him out of state largely on the say-so of school officials, is not presented very well. Surprisingly, even the presence of talented veteran actors like Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, and Thomas Lennon can’t make this material all that interesting.


The one interesting storyline involves Stone’s efforts to turn his life around. They could have been spun into a solid storyline if the script weren’t so intent on foreshadowing by focusing on a couple of incidents (Stone is shown struggling to master jiu jitsu and, wouldn’t you know it, he needs those skills to subdue the terrorist). That’s where the story before the hijacking lies, but the screenwriter wasn’t adept enough to focus on that.


Like Sully Sullenberger’s heroic moment, the true story of what Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos accomplished while literally staring down the barrel of a terrorist with a gun is truly remarkable. And Clint Eastwood does them justice when he depicts those events, but only those events. The culprits are not the three heroes and their limited acting abilities; indeed, they handle most of their scenes passably well. No, the culprit is a script that is a miscarriage of justice, resulting in a mediocre film. The 15:17 to Paris is not a total trainwreck, but it runs off the rails for far too long. 

In this featurette, Clint Eastwood and the actors talk about making the film.

Read other reviews of The 15:17 to Paris: 

The 15:17 to Paris (2018) on IMDb