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Front Page - Friday, February 16, 2018

Critic's Corner: Heroic soldiers take slow ride aboard ‘15:17 to Paris’

No filmmaker sets out to make a bad movie. But it happens to the best of them – even director Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood, whose last two movies as director were “American Sniper” and “Sully,” had been on a creative roll. Both “Sniper” and “Sully” received accolades from audiences and critics alike and numerous awards.

He’s also been on a true-life hero’s kick. “Sniper” is based on the life of Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history, while “Sully” covers pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River.

Eastwood’s new film, “The 15:17 to Paris,” continues in this vein, with the story following three young men as they stop the 2015 Thalys train attack. Alas, the movie is a major misfire that marks the end of Eastwood’s winning streak.

The Thalys attack occurred on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. It’s notable among terrorist attacks for its lack of casualties. Despite brandishing an assault rifle (for which he was carrying nine magazines), a pistol and a box cutter, Ayoub El Khazzani, a 25-year-old Moroccan, was unable to kill anyone.

This was due in part to the heroics of the three men – Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos – who subdued Khazzani after his rifle jammed.

Although the story of the attack sounds like it has the ingredients for an exciting and inspiring film, very little of “15:17” is either exciting or inspiring. Instead, the two words I would use to describe it are boring and lackluster.

This was due in part to Eastwood casting Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos as themselves. On “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Eastwood said he cast them because he didn’t know if he could find actors with the same faces and enthusiasm as the heroes of the story.

Kimmel, who rarely misses an opportunity for a joke, asked Eastwood if he’d considered casting the actual terrorist, too. Eastwood countered with, “The French put their foot down and said no.”

The results are not bad across the board. Stone is watchable. I don’t recall any awkward line deliveries or bad timing, and even though he doesn’t move with grace, he doesn’t look unnatural or uncomfortable, either. Overall, he did a decent job, of well, portraying himself.

But Sadler and Skarlatos – bless their hearts, as they say in the South.

I can’t fault the guys for screwing up “15:17” any more than someone could criticize me for mucking up the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake.” If I were suddenly cast as Prince Siegfried and dropped into a dance belt (look it up, but not at work), I’m pretty sure it would be the YouTube hit of the year – for all the wrong reasons.

Moreover, any reviews skewering my performance would be mean.

So, I’ll just say Sadler and Skarlatos were clearly not ready to be in front of the camera, and it hurts the movie when they’re onscreen.

That still feels mean, but I don’t know a more diplomatic way of putting it.

Perhaps they would have fared better had Dorothy Blyskal written better dialogue. Even experienced film actors would have trouble wrapping their tongues around lines like, “Hey, I was just thinking of applying for a credit card with frequent flyer miles!”

Basing the screenplay on the autobiography “The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Soldiers” by Jeffrey Stern, Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos, Blyskal follows the three heroes from their days as childhood friends to the afternoon they’re on the train.

I’m unsure whether Blyskal tried and failed to draw a sense of destiny out of the lives of Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos, or if she was saying moments of heroism can present themselves without warning to normal, everyday people.

Either way, Blyskal failed to focus on one idea, so “15:17” feels limp as it mostly keeps track of Stone as he struggles to gain footing in the military and find a way to make a difference.

Eastwood is not without blame for how lifeless “15:17” is. Whereas he was at the top of his game with “Sully,” in which he used every tool available to him as a director to create tension and suspense, even the attack in “15:17” fails to generate much excitement. If it’s true that everyone has an off day, this is Eastwood’s.

Movies about real life events are often criticized for exaggerating or even changing what happened for the sake of drama.

Perhaps “15:17” can serve as a case study of what happens when a movie hews to closely to the actual events.

There’s no doubting that Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos saved lives and deserve the medals France and the U.S. bestowed upon them. But at least based on Eastwood’s “15:17,” their actions didn’t merit a full-length motion picture.