Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler’s heroics in the midst of a terror attack aboard a European train resonated internationally as the epitome of courage in the face of adversity. Clint Eastwood’s film depicting the event, though, appears to have elicited a colder reaction.
“The 15:17 to Paris” had just 20 percent approval through its first 69 Rotten Tomatoes reviews as of Friday afternoon, with an average critical score of 4.2/10 and 44 percent audience approval. Entertainment Weekly critic Kevin Sullivan gave the film a “D” grade and called it a “well intentioned disaster” lacking in substance.
“More than three-quarters of ‘15:17’ is lead-up to the train attack, which is at least thrillingly shot and edited,” Sullivan wrote. “Outside of that short sequence, the rest is filler, with Eastwood occasionally dipping heavy-handedly into his ideas of American principles: distrust of authority figures, ‘boys will be boys’ dismissiveness and Christianity.”
Eastwood’s movie chronicles Skarlatos, Stone and Sadler’s lives growing up in Sacramento, becoming young adults and gallivanting around Europe on the vacation that cast them into the spotlight. The film prioritizes Stone’s backstory above that of Sadler or Skarlatos, according to several reviews, and Hollywood veterans such as Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer, Tony Hale and Thomas Lennon drop into background roles.
On Aug. 21, 2015, Skarlatos, Stone and Sadler were riding a 3:17 p.m. train from Amsterdam to Paris when Moroccan national Ayoub El-Khazzani shot French professor Mark Moogalian. El-Khazzani began marching down the train’s aisle armed with an AK-47, a pistol, nearly 300 rounds of ammunition and a box cutter, intent on causing more destruction.
At Skarlatos’ prompting, Stone sprinted down the aisle and tackled the shirtless El-Khazzani, who deeply slashed the American’s thumb and neck with the box cutter. Sadler, Skarlatos and British passenger Chris Norman joined Stone to subdue El-Khazzani before tying him up and waiting for authorities to arrive.
Skarlatos, Stone and Sadler all made their acting debuts playing themselves, as did Moogalian and Norman, and many reviewers forgave the heroes for their slight woodenness. But “The 15:17 to Paris” is Dorothy Blyskal’s first screenplay, and most were not as kind in pointing out what they saw as clunky, empty writing in a 94-minute movie.
“Minus its pivotal event, ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ feels a lot like sitting through someone else’s endless photo slide show: really only interesting to the people who lived it,” wrote Sara Stewart of the New York Post.
Not every critic panned the film. A.O. Scott of The New York Times commended its stripped-down “artlessness” for letting the trio’s less-than-groundbreaking backgrounds showcase how ordinary they really were. If Skarlatos, Stone and Sadler seem more like extras than movie stars, it’s because they very well could have been, he said.
“ ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ isn’t a meditation on fate any more than it is an exploration of the politics of global terrorism,” Scott wrote. “Rather, it is concerned with locating the precise boundary between the banal and the extraordinary, between routine and violence, between complacency and courage.”
The Globe and Mail reviewer John Semley even gave “The 15:17 to Paris” four out of four stars, praising the 87-year-old Eastwood for developing a distinct style in his later years and refusing to slip quietly into old age.
Unlike Eastwood’s recent hits such as “American Sniper” and “Sully,” though, this story of ordinary citizens stepping up when the moment called fell flat with most audiences.
“As they tick off all those European cities on the countdown to the 15:17, Spencer keeps portentously saying that he feels he was put on earth for a higher purpose,” the Daily Mail’s Brian Viner wrote. “My own rather lower purpose is to dissuade you from seeing the worst film that Eastwood has ever made.”