"THE 15:17 TO PARIS" — 2½ stars — Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer, Thomas Lennon, Lillian Solange Beaudoin, Jaleel White; PG-13 (bloody images, violence, some suggestive material, drug references and language) ; in general release
The good news is that the heart of Clint Eastwood's "The 15:17 to Paris" — the true story of how a trio of Americans accosted an ISIS terrorist on a commuter train — is excellent. It's inspirational, moving and even acted by the real-life participants.
The bad news is that the actual altercation is comparatively brief and that in order to get the film's content out to feature length, things feel … stretched.
The basic idea is that where "15:17's" third act delivers the action goods, the first 60-70 minutes or so will give enough back story to the three heroes to explain how life prepared them for their heroic deed. The payoff is substantial, but the ride to get there is a little bumpy.
After a foreboding opening that shows ISIS terrorist Ayoub (Ray Corasani) boarding the train, "15:17" flashes back to 2005, where Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler (played as preteens by William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar and Paul-Mikel Williams) meet and become friends in grade school. All three have a knack for getting in trouble, and a good deal of time is spent on how Spencer and Alek's mothers (played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer) constantly have to butt heads with school authorities.
There's some clunky half-baked commentary on school policy and religious faith, and combined with some equally clunky acting and writing, "15:17's" first act doesn't get the film off to a good start. Fortunately, once things jump ahead, we see Spencer and Alek make their way into the military (now played by themselves) and things get progressively better.
Through all of this, Spencer gradually takes center stage as the film's primary protagonist, wrestling with persistent setbacks as he tries to realize a destiny he can sense, even if he can't quite put his finger on its identity. We see him battle to succeed in the Air Force while Alek makes his way to Afghanistan, and the two keep in touch with Anthony back home.
It's while Spencer is training in Portugal that the pair hatch the plan to backpack Europe, and once they convince Anthony to join them, the stage is set for their fateful ride between Amsterdam and Paris.
If you can make it that far, the finale is as good as you'd hope for. Just keep that in mind while you're waiting through scenes in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands that don't always seem to drive the plot so much as serve as time filler (at one point on the train, we watch as all three place individual drink orders).
Aside from the dramatic encounter itself, "15:17's" most interesting selling point is the presence of the real-life heroes playing their own characters rather than turning up in brief cameos while Hollywood talent does the heavy lifting. It's pretty obvious that Spencer and Co. aren't pros, but given the situation, it's easy enough to give them a pass.
You get the sense that Eastwood's goal of celebrating the young men's heroism has taken precedence over telling the best story possible, and for many audiences, "15:17's" pathos will justify the experience. It's just too bad that a bit more time couldn't have been spent on the first two acts — then "The 15:17 to Paris" might have become a film truly worthy of its inspiration.
"The 15:17 to Paris" is rated PG-13 for bloody images, violence, some suggestive material, drug references and language; running time: 94 minutes.