Monday, 19 February 2018

The 15:17 To Paris (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: On an afternoon train from Amsterdam to Paris, U.S. soldiers Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos, along with their best friend Anthony Sadler, encounter a terrorist ready to kill everyone on-board. As they get ready to take him down, Spencer recollects what led him to this moment, from his school days to his military training to the brief instances before this very moment that would make him and his friends into heroes.

It feels kind of silly doing my usual acting breakdown for this one because this is a bit of a unique situation. For our main three characters, we don’t have actors; we have the actual people from the real-life story playing themselves. This is a casting technique that is hardly new in the realms of cinema, but certainly one we haven’t seen in something this mainstream for quite a while. Looking at them in action, it becomes apparent why that might be. Not to say that they’re bad on-screen, as they bring a definite grounding to the story, but they feel insanely conspicuous next to the actual actors in the cast. Hell, this disconnect exists between the real-life heroes and the child actors portraying their younger selves (William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar and Paul-Mik√©l Williams respectively). It’s too clear that our three leads and the rest of the cast are working from different playbooks, and because of that, this attempt at realism only ends up pulling the audience out of the action. Well, once they bother to even get to the action, that is.

I don’t think I’ve ever done this before but I need to do an act-by-act breakdown of the story, because not only are the three we have here quite distinct, they also show varying different ways that Clint Eastwood could apparently balls up this entire idea. Starting out, we are thrown into a seriously jumbled timeline, cutting back and forth between the school years, the adult years and the events that took place on the titular train. This method only presents itself within the first act, and is rather noticeably absent afterwards, making this preamble feel like a very sloppy first edit rather than a completed production. This isn’t helped by the barrage of juicy bits of dialogue that, in no time whatsoever, gave an immediate sense that something was very wrong here. It’s quote time!

So, the mothers of Spencer and Alek (played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer respectively) are told by their sons’ teacher that the kids may have ADD. Spencer’s mom responds with “So, you want us to drug our kids to make your job easier?”. When the teacher tries to explain the statistics around ADD diagnoses, Spencer’s mom storms out after saying “My god is bigger than your statistics”. Both of these lines are said straight and supposed to get the audience on-side with the person saying them. I should mention at this point that, around the time these pearls were uttered, my medication alarm went off for my Seroquel. You can probably guess that I’m not too fond of this exchange and its connotations, and somehow, it only gets worse from there.

Maybe this is because I don’t live in America, but seeing young Spencer and his friends playing with a veritable arsenal of BB guns, complete with a real-as-fuck hunting rifle, is kind of troubling. Then again, all of this is just a showcasing of Eastwood’s own politics: Military good, gun ownership good, liberals need to stop whinging. As much as I would love to take all those ideas to task, I can at least see why they’re here. It’s supposed to show these soon-to-be-heroes as the underdogs, the ones who no-one thought would amount to anything, with a shared interest in military tactics to set up their narrative future. With that lens, these things become slightly more appealing, but that goodwill eventually drains away during the second act.

Knowing how easily the casting idea for our leads could have just devolved into gimmickry, I don’t think it’s fair to be entirely cynical about this. Well, I would have said that, if it weren’t for the insane amount of waffling on that happens with this middle section. It’s comprised mainly of Spencer going through military training, with a bit of trial-and-error involved, and seeing him, Alek and Anthony going backpacking through Europe. Part of me thinks that these guys agreed to portray themselves here because it meant a free European vacation because that’s about all these scenes ultimately serve. Outside of some occasionally lecherous cinematography courtesy of Eastwood regular Tom Stern, all we are shown here are three Americans farting around and taking selfies in front of some European landmarks. Nothing is accomplished in this space, and it only serves to kill whatever momentum had been built up from the start. The film seems to be in no real rush to get anyway quickly, which would be fine if the character interactions made the road trip worth taking. As good as the chemistry between the main three is, this isn’t what we get. The closest to worthy dialogue we get here is a few spare exchanges talking about destiny and how Spencer is being pushed towards some higher purpose. Somehow, I doubt being in this film qualifies.

And then we get to the titular event, where Spencer, Alek and Anthony prevented a serious tragedy on a Paris-bound train. Considering we’re dealing with not only a real-life story but also the real-life components of that story, I want to make it clear that I am not casting dispersions on what these men have done, both on and off-screen. What I do take issue with is the fact that, once we do get to the main action, it’s over and done with in record time. It takes up a good ten minutes of this hour-and-a-half feature and with how blandly it’s taken care of, it not only makes the slog preceding it feel even more wasteful but it also undersells the genuine heroism of the story. All the narrative pieces here are aiming for setting up ordinary people on the path to an event that would show them as heroes, but with this finale, we certainly get the ‘ordinary people’ aspect but not the ‘heroes’ aspect. What makes this bizarre is the fact that, at least once before, Clint Eastwood has done this exact same idea to far greater effect. Sully, for instance, may have had its plot hiccups but it still highlighted the courage and drive of the ordinary human that would make them extraordinary. That film actually left me inspired to do something good. All this does is make me want to make a better movie out of the material myself; “if you want something done right…” and all that.

All in all, this is a neatly-partitioned mixture of bad, boring and too little, too late. The “acting” suffers from not going with either all real people or all actors, making the interactions between the two very distracting, the narrative structure feels like it was constructed by someone with no idea how pacing or tension works, and the production at large is definitely trying to be inspiring and detailing the exploits of real-life heroes, but the end result would hardly inspire someone to give up sweets for a day, let alone anything more substantial. And to add insult to injury, seeing Clint Eastwood floundering this badly to do something he had already done only a couple years ago makes even my attempts to excuse his politicising in-film seem foolish. Maybe if this film actually had some focus, or at least looked up the word in the dictionary, it would be worth trying to salvage.

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