When all is said and done, when one day, decades from now, people look back on the history of film, I’m not sure how much of Clint Eastwood’s directorial output will truly be remembered. Remember all the awards Million Dollar Baby (2004) won? Remember how lauded Gran Torino (2008) was? Who’s really thought about or examined those films in the intervening years? I mean, I haven’t, though I’ve never really been a fan of his work, often finding it melodramatic, heavy-handed and often downright goofy. Eastwood’s latest, The 15:17 to Paris, changes none of that, though it does offer one thing that gives it the potential to be a future curio, something those films do not: an intensely silly gimmick.
The idea here is that Eastwood is telling the true story of the 15:17 to Paris, a 2015 terror attack where a gunman opened fire on a high-speed train. This same gunman was then thwarted by American servicemen who happened to be on the same train. The gimmick is that Eastwood has decided to use the actual Americans who were on the train, attempting to make something more honest and realistic out of what might be a simple story of heroism. The strange end result, however, is that he’s made a movie that’s more distracting than if it had normal, professional actors on screen, since this real-life cast — Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler — have zero charisma and are constantly reminding you that they’re amateurs. By trying to make something “realistic,” Eastwood has instead made a film that’s so rickety that it’s impossible to be immersed in it.
Things might have been better if the film that was constructed around its leads were sturdier, but Eastwood has long passed the days of being a strong, coherent filmmaker. The rest of the cast of professionals isn’t much better, or when they are, it hardly matters. At the same time, the whole business on the train isn’t enough to maintain a feature-length film, so Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal have framed the film inside the protagonists’ childhood. Most of the film consists of the hokey, pat philosophical banter on the meaning of life, while everything in between is filled up with clunky, sometimes painfully awkward dialogue. Eastwood and company really want to examine the nature of heroism, namely in the way that it’s more about doing the right thing at the right moment. But as a director, Eastwood simply doesn’t have the tact to lay any of this out with any degree of subtlety, leaving a movie that’s not only flimsy but bluntly and shamelessly obvious.
The actual climax of the film — the terrorist attack that these men have been strangely asked to re-enact with a professional actor — is theoretically exciting enough. I say theoretically because Eastwood can’t really shoot a coherent action scene (that these men are even in this particular “action scene” is incredibly bizarre to think about) while also being far too little at the end of a slog of a film. In the end, The 15:17 to Paris is more interesting for the things it says accidentally as opposed to any intent on Eastwood’s part. Rated PG-13 on appeal for bloody images, violence, some suggestive material, drug references and language. Showing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark Asheville, Regal Biltmore Grande Stadium 15, Epic Theatres of Hendersonville.