Wednesday, February 14, 2018

In Theaters: THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dorothy Blyskal. Cast: Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Tony Hale, Thomas Lennon, P.J. Byrne, Jaleel White, Ray Corasani, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikel Williams, Vernon Dobtcheff, Steve Coulter, Mark Moogalian, Isabelle Moogalian, Chris Norman, Jeanne Goursaud, Alisa Allapach. (PG-13, 94 mins)

THE 15:17 TO PARIS, the last and easily the least of Clint Eastwood's unofficial American Heroes trilogy (following AMERICAN SNIPER and SULLY), tries to get by on the stunt casting of the real heroes involved in thwarting a terrorist attack aboard a Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015. US Air Force staff sergeant Spencer Stone, US Army National Guard soldier Alek Skarlatos, and their non-enlisted childhood buddy Anthony Sadler were aboard the train to their final stop on a European backpacking trip when Ayoub El-Khazzani (played here by Ray Corasani) opened fire, leading to Stone, then Skarlatos and Sadler leaping to action to subdue him and tend to passenger Mark Moogalian (also playing himself), who was shot in the back and the neck trying to stop El-Khazzani before he made it to the car with the three Americans. It's a riveting story of heroism, adrenaline, and making split-second decisions, but does it warrant a 90-minute movie? Eastwood ran into this situation with 2016's SULLY, which took a five-minute incident and padded it out to feature-length and even had to manufacture its own drama in the process by inventing a vengeful head of an investigatory panel who did everything short of twirl a non-existent mustache to show his seething contempt for Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and his obsessive desire to nail the heroic pilot's balls to the wall. That never happened, even by Sully's admission. The closest thing to a villain in the Sully Sullenberger story is a flock of birds in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stone managed to overpower El-Khazzani fairly quickly thanks to terrorist's gun jamming. This takes up about a minute of screen time. To fill the remaining 90-odd minutes, Eastwood spends the bulk of the movie on Stone's and Sadler's selfie-filled trip to Italy before meeting up with Skarlatos in Germany and then going to Amsterdam. This allows the three friends to re-enact parts of a trip they took three years ago and makes THE 15:17 TO PARIS a de facto travelogue for much of its running time. Prior to that, the film goes into their childhood in Sacramento, with Spencer and Alek being regularly bulled and struggling with authority issues, which their Christian school condescendingly blames on them being raised by single moms (Judy Greer plays Spencer's mom, Jenna Fischer plays Alek's). The Euro travelogue stuff may be like watching boring, digitally-shot home movies (I wouldn't be surprised if Eastwood farmed the whole midsection of this film out to the second unit), but the opening section is embarrassingly heavy-handed and atrociously-acted, not just by the child actors but by Greer and Fischer, both experienced professionals who look completely defeated by the terrible dialogue in Dorothy Blyskal's script, which reads like a rough draft at best. When the moms are informed by a snotty teacher that Spencer and Alek might have ADD and should be medicated, it's hard to tell what's worse: the teacher saying "Statistics show that if you don't medicate them now, they'll only self-medicate later!," Greer responding "My God is bigger than your statistics!" or Fischer angrily reacting to the principal's (Thomas Lennon) ludicrous suggestion that "perhaps Alek should live with his father" with an outraged "The absurdity of it all!" followed immediately by a shot of her dutifully packing Alek and his belongings into his dad's minivan just like the principal told her to do. The stunt casting isn't limited to the three stars: almost every school authority figure--Lennon, P.J. Byrne as an asshole teacher, Tony Hale as a snide gym instructor, and Jaleel White as a kindly history teacher ("Those boys!" he chuckles to himself as they leave class)--is played by someone known for their comedic skills. It's nice to see Urkel getting a paycheck, but the sight of him and Buster Bluth in bit parts as teachers is even more distracting than the obvious discomfort of the non-actors in front the camera. At least they have an excuse for their stilted line deliveries and deer-in-the-headlights expressions, but when people like Fischer, Greer, Hale, and Lennon come off like amateurs, things are not going as planned.

To be fair, the attack aboard the train is very well-done and this is where Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler really come alive. They lived it, they know exactly how it went down, and Eastwood wisely let them do their thing. But that's a few minutes of an otherwise misbegotten misfire. Eastwood's worked with non-professional actors before on GRAN TORINO, and the results were still occasionally awkward but the entire film didn't rest on the shoulders of Bee Vang and Ahney Her. Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler are true heroes, but they're not actors, and prior to the thwarted attack on the train, they aren't even remotely convincing as buddies even though they've known each other since childhood. This is hardly their fault. Eastwood is a laid-back director, but he's notoriously impatient even with professional actors, and it's well-known that he gets annoyed if he has to do more than two takes. This is how he always comes in under budget and ahead of schedule. I'm sure he extended some leeway to the trio of stars, but a lot of this film looks like first or second takes, and the semi-improv travel bits don't even look like they're the work of Eastwood. THE 15:17 TO PARIS keeps coming back to Spencer's feeling that he's destined for something of great purpose (which is more than you can say for THE 15:17 TO PARIS), and it's a premonition reiterated by Alek's mother. But the way it's presented here, it's just a hackneyed plot device clumsily foreshadowing their heroism. It's hard telling what Eastwood wanted to accomplish here. He could've made a documentary short subject if he found the story that interesting. But at feature-length, he's scrambling for things to pad the running time but can't even be bothered to show the three guys reuniting after years apart: Spencer and Anthony are in Italy about to head to Germany to meet with Alek, and in the very next shot, they're dancing in a club packed with wall-to-wall people, and Anthony's buying Alek a drink. Wait...they're in Germany? And they already reunited with Alek? Wouldn't that be worth showing instead of Anthony taking a pic with his selfie stick for the 37th time?

He works at the speed of Woody Allen, but Eastwood hasn't made a memorable film in ten years (be honest--when's the last time you thought of INVICTUS, HEREAFTER, or J. EDGAR?). He's been on this hagiographical course since JERSEY BOYS, and whether it's getting facts right or even something simple like establishing where characters are, he just doesn't seem concerned. Mark Moogalian, an American who long ago relocated to France and is a professor at the Sorbonne, was one of the first to confront El-Khazzani, getting shot and almost bleeding out on the train, but he's not even an afterthought here, not even worthy of the end-of-film "Where are they now?" captions that the three Americans get. Is it because he doesn't fit the profile of the "America! Fuck Yeah!" narrative of Eastwood's American Heroes trilogy? British businessman Chris Norman was also on the train, helped disarm El-Khazzani, and plays himself in a few fleeting shots, but we never even get his name.There's no way UNFORGIVEN-era Eastwood would've made a film this shruggingly indifferent. It's insensitive and incorrect to chalk this up to his mental faculties (though talking to an empty chair in support of Mitt Romney a few years ago wasn't a good look) or a declining ability to handle the workload. He's almost 88 but I don't believe that's the case. I do, however, believe his being almost 88 is a reason he simply doesn't give a shit like he used to. His films are getting sloppier and he's more concerned with getting them done than getting them right (remember that baby in AMERICAN SNIPER?). Maybe he's earned that privilege after seven decades in the business, and maybe he continues working because it keeps him going and maybe he feels he can keep time at bay for a little while longer if he stays busy. But if THE 15:17 TO PARIS is any indication, he'd need to put forth more effort to even reach "coasting." It's because Eastwood is such an iconic legend of cinema that watching him half-ass it in his emeritus years is so distressing.

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