In the summer of 2015, three young American men from Sacramento boarded a train in Amsterdam, en route to Paris, while enjoying a time-honored rite of passage: a European backpacking trip. In Brussels, another young man boarded the train, with a backpack full of guns and 300 rounds of ammunition. After tussling with American teacher Mark Moogalian and shooting him in the neck, he found himself in a car with a trio of young Americans filled up with youthful bravado, military training and a desire to not die lying down. What other heady combination could inspire a person to tackle a shirtless man cocking an AK-47 in a confined space?
When these events happen, especially when the heroes are as appealingly young and attractive as these are, there is the typical fanfare — the awards and decorations, the ticker tape parades, the talk show appearances and even “Dancing With The Stars,” for Alek Skarlatos (he came in third). Perhaps a book, and maybe even a movie made about you, such as “The 15:17 to Paris,” directed by Clint Eastwood, adapted for the screen by Dorothy Blyskal.
Eastwood decided to take a leap and go further in his biographical depiction, casting the major players as themselves in this blend of documentary and narrative filmmaking. It’s a risk that doesn’t quite pay off. While the three friends do have their charms on “Ellen” or a late night talk show, their performances in the feature film are essentially an argument for hiring professional actors.
However, the amateur performances aren’t the biggest problem with “The 15:17 to Paris.” After a while, the awkward line readings fade away, and their natural charisma shines. But for an incident that took about a minute or two, expanding the story to feature length is a stretch, and Blyskal’s script doesn’t know where to focus, and features eye-roll inducing, plainly on-the-nose dialogue.
The film jumps between short moments before the attack and the boys’ upbringing as mischievous kids, obsessed with guns and war and bonding as outsiders at their Christian school. Years later, Spencer joins the Air Force, Alek the Oregon National Guard, and Anthony enters college. There are a few carefully placed scenes illustrating Spencer’s desire to save lives, to be a hero, whether training as a medic or thinking quickly during an active shooter alert. He feels as though life is catapulting him toward a place he needs to be.
The story could have dived into that hunger for action and purpose, or even what drives someone to take a huge risk such as he did, tackling attacker Ayoub El-Khazzani, narrowly escaping death when El-Khazzani’s guns jammed. Rather than searching for inner depth or meaning, it’s written off as fate and the grace of God, while much of the film is spent on shallow and essentially meaningless scenes of the guys sightseeing around Europe — selfies, gelato, beer in Germany, clubbing in Amsterdam. They may be playing themselves, but there’s no real cinematic character development, for the benefit of the audience.
The action sequence on the train is truly remarkable, and Eastwood shoots with a documentary-style immediacy, but the surrounding film — especially the script and performances — doesn’t serve this thrilling true-life story, or the audience. The casting is an interesting experiment, but “The 15:17 To Paris” fails to ever leave the station.