Reel-life heroes: 'The 15:17 to Paris' stars the guys who thwarted a terror train attack

Casting nonprofessional actors in key parts can create iffy results, but it can also pay dividends. Ideally, what you sacrifice in polish and technique you gain back in verisimilitude, the sense of life as it is lived. If the film provides that, some stiff line readings can be forgiven.

So it is with The 15:17 to Paris, the new drama about the three Americans who helped thwart a 2015 terrorist attack aboard the Thalys train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. 15:17 works hard to establish Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler as ordinary dudes rising to meet extraordinary circumstances, even using Stone's and Skarlatos' military service as a major plot point. They're just three friends having fun on a Euro trip. They're not celebrities, so having them play themselves emphasizes their humble origins and makes pretty good cinematic sense.

Before we go further, a word about the director-producer. Guy named Eastwood. You may not like everything Clint says, especially when he's talking to an empty chair, and his track record is spottier these days than it was in his aughts heyday. But he's still making strong, competent movies. Eastwood will be 88 in May. If I'm doing anything when I'm 88 as well he makes movies, I'll be a very happy 88-year-old.

There are at least a couple of ways to tell the story of 15:17, which is based on a book by the three principal players. You could take a ticktock approach, re-creating the crisis in minute detail and ratcheting up the tension, a la United 93, another film featuring everyday people responding to a deadly crisis (and which also featured some of the real-life figures involved).

Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal go a different route. They focus on the three men's lifelong friendship, starting with their days as troublemaking kids in Sacramento, jutting out to follow Stone and Skarlatos through their fledgling military careers, then reuniting them with the civilian Sadler for a vacation through Italy (Venice is alluring, as always), Germany, Amsterdam and, eventually, Paris, which is the source of considerable telegraphed dialogue. The specter of Paris hasn't loomed this large in a film since Casablanca.

Eastwood contains multitudes, and so do his films, for all their loose, minimalist style. The opening childhood section plods in establishing the three kids and their struggles in school (though Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer shine as Stone's and Skarlatos' single moms). Even the middle section, dramatizing the fits and starts of young adulthood, can reasonably make a viewer ask: Where are we going here?

Then we get to Europe, and something happens. The dialogue gets looser and more natural. Suddenly you feel you could be watching a documentary about young adults doing the Continent: dancing in clubs, flirting with girls, interacting with strangers, taking selfies. This section does the most to establish these real people as real people. The film relaxes and enjoys itself a little, just in time to prep us for the crisis we know is coming.

(L-R) Former U.S. National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and former U.S. Air Force staff sergeant Spencer Stone arrive for the world premiere of "The 15:17 to Paris" at the Warner Bros. Studios SJR theatre in Burbank, California, on February 5, 2018.

Eastwood plants brief flash-forward glimpses of the train attack throughout the film, but cuts away from them a little too quickly. The incident itself is a bracing and intimate piece of filmmaking, raw and tense and bloody, and perfectly paced. I found myself wishing more of the film had been devoted to it.

And yet, there's boldness to 15:17's unusual structure, a stubbornness that flies in the face of expectation. Eastwood knows what we anticipate going in; by taking his sweet time, he gives us something different. This old dog still has some new tricks up his sleeve, and a willingness to turn conventions around. In this context, the casting makes further sense. It's a maverick move, executed by one of the Hollywood system's true maverick moviemakers.

The 15:17 to Paris (B)

PG-13 (bloody images, violence, some suggestive material, drug references and language). 94 minutes. In wide release.

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