The 15:17 to Paris chronicles the true-life story of U.S. First Class Airman Spencer Stone, along with U.S. Army Specialist Alek Skarlatos and their mutual friend Anthony Sadler, who played a pivotal role in foiling an attack aboard a Paris-bound Thalys train in 2015. The three friends, with help from a number of fellow passengers in the process, bum-rushed the attacker after he exited the bathroom and his rifle jammed, subsequently working together and suffering injuries in subduing him before any lives were taken. They received France’s esteemed Legion of Honour for their heroism, so let’s leave them with those wonderful accolades, because the men unfortunately play themselves in this latest Hollywood film that would otherwise besmirch their legacy.
The 15:17 to Paris is, quite possibly, the best comedy since Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, meaning that it’s also one of the worst films I have ever seen, and you should debate for yourself whether you wish to avoid the agony of an increasingly bland, sentimental string of events that not only fails to do the heroes of the story justice but also aggressively undermines their bravery and reduces them to inhuman cutouts spouting absurd dialogue and trudging around Europe to snap a few (ok, a lot of) uninspired selfies, or actually sit through it all and maybe end up crying with laughter at the inanity of everything leading up to the brief event that inspired it—if this sentence has seemed unbearably long to you, then congratulations, for you have successfully conditioned yourself to sit through 95% of Clint Eastwood’s recent directorial effort. You might even be prepared to sit back and, yes, enjoy it.
First and foremost, the non-actors who play themselves are to be pitied, many scenes appearing to have been shot with one or two throwaway takes. Now, this practice of employing non-actors for a starker naturalism is nothing new to cinema; Robert Bresson and Jim Jarmusch did so regularly, and more recent films like Heaven Knows What and Beasts of the Southern Wild bear impressive performances from the likes of a recovering addict and a career baker. Furthermore, Eastwood has explained that his style is the “one-or-two-take-and-done,” and it would be understandable to avoid subjecting these men repeatedly to the very trauma that they lived through. However, there is no excuse here, since that trauma covers only about 10 final minutes of the film that are surprisingly competent anyway, the rest of it being a mundane travelogue including a moment akin to The Room’s coffee shop scene in which our protagonists order gelato in real time. The dialogue is chock full of that hesitation, second-guessing, and small talk that come with ordering food in new surroundings. So it’s fair to say that a few, no, countless more takes would have been necessary here. What we get instead are unconvincing performances even in the most superficial exchanges—every laugh is artificial, every facial expression devoid of emotion, and every line reading painfully forced.
But discomfort runs rampant even among talented people sprinkled in, like the usually multifaceted Judy Greer and understated Jenna Fischer as an intriguing pair of dogmatic mothers who appear rarely apart. Yet they, too, are made unlikable through thinly written personalities, orating conservative philosophies here and fawning over their sons’ cuteness there. Even more, there is little chemistry between them, since rather than being a symbiotic couple whose distinguishable quirks and nuances complement, conflict with, and ultimately complete each other, they might as well be the exact same character or no character at all. Fischer and Greer fade into the film’s periphery with wide-eyed, overly-protective expressions, their scenes serving either to push an extraneous ideology or give the parents in the audience something to “Awww” over.
Oh, and why not throw in a few other friendly faces like Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, and Jaleel White to sleep through generic roles in fleeting, joyless scenes? These are three character actors who have risen beyond their already iconic roles, avoiding the harsh clutch of typecasting, to prove versatile, instantly distinct screen presences with sharp comic timing. Here, though, they fall victim to the same uninspired directorial choices that hang over The 15:17 to Paris like an unseen Grim Reaper. Maybe some viewers will have an instinctual chuckle at discovering their sitcom favorites in a straight-laced “drama,” but they’ll soon be disappointed to find that nothing has been written for them beyond academic archetypes. That’s literally it: Lennon, Hale, and White are a principal who keeps the kids in check, a whistle-happy coach with a loud enough voice to direct a team of sweaty pre-teens, and a teacher who hands out grades and capably instructs a class. Greer and Fischer included, there are no eccentricities, fleshed-out character traits, or even just conduits for the sake of exposition dumps, but far worse; these skilled performers are merely present, their characters bland as hell, and they seem to be just as baffled to be here as we are.
This film, therefore, is a terrorist attack in itself, one that detonates the dramatic filmmaking process by targeting the craft of scriptwriting to leave us with no shelter from the poor direction and its crippling shockwaves. Notice how I’ve avoided the ironically obvious term “failed” in making this claim—that would imply a complete disaster, nothing more than a whimper in a train corridor. No, this is bombastic; it will shock you, discomfort you, and dare you to not look away. The 15:17 to Paris accomplishes such a feat by throwing motivation, pacing, aesthetics, subtlety, and general understanding of human behavior out of a burning window and plummeting to a blunt-force impact on the pavement below. In other words, it’s an unforgettable contribution to the biopic genre.
Sure, it just so happens to make up for (only slightly) its lethal shortcomings in a total of about 10 minutes in which the camera techniques become energized and manage to deliver a tense moment. But this is perhaps the single moment it comes close to getting right, or the only one that the filmmakers seemed to care about. Otherwise, the cinematography and narrative momentum are sterile, characterless, and lacking in any distinctive texture or fluidity that would have made this world seem lived-in or inspired or just plain well-made. Which brings me to yet another major problem: it feels brutally long even at a slim runtime of 94 minutes. There is a 40-minute stretch where the protagonists engage in uncomfortably long Skype calls and wander beautiful cities (filmed in a cardboard, identity-less fashion, just to reiterate) while interacting with complete strangers, taking photos, ordering that godforsaken gelato, hopping on a stripper pole, and exchanging horrendous dialogue such as, “Do you ever just feel like life is just pushing us towards something, like some greater purpose?” But this line was used heavily in the film’s promotional material, so that’s not even the worst of it; Greer’s opening “mic-drop” sets the tone as she responds to a teacher’s pragmatism with, “My God is greater than your statistics.” If this were a parody of the alt-right, then that line would probably be an incisive jab, but no, there’s no doubt it’s said in earnest here.
The 15:17 to Paris is, unlike the polished high-speed vessel of its final moments, an absolute trainwreck of a film—perhaps well intentioned and respectful of the real-life figures, but ultimately a farce of everyone who inspired it by proving a wholly incompetent piece of cinema. It could have been a tense documentary. It could have been a moving short film. Hell, it could have been a remotely decent feature film in much better hands than these, hands that might have created a mood or personality at the bare minimum. They might have even acted upon a professional impulse to step back from overbearing agenda and half-hearted witticisms to produce a carefully observed portrait of these events. What we got instead is an airbrushed, artless, hokey, insufferably dull, and shockingly amateur attempt to dramatize this story, one that, in terms of basic emotional investment, registers as a few episodes of a daytime soap opera.
More than anything, though, it is a film that made my stomach hurt from laughing through three quarters of its runtime, which is, when you really take a moment to think about it, something quite disturbing; The 15:17 to Paris turns a story revolving around a horrific event, along with the actual men who prevented it from getting worse, into something unabashedly hilarious.
Tyler is a Brooklyn-based adjunct writing professor and freelance film critic. His previous publications include the New York Public Library Zine!, After the Pause, and Film Matters. When not teaching or writing, he can be found watching notoriously bad films with his friends.