Now in his 80s, the latest turn in Clint Eastwood’s remarkable career sees the producer-director taking on real-life heroes and situations to make his movies. There was the massive hit American Sniper, then the story of hero airline pilot Sully, and now perhaps his riskiest bet yet in The 15:17 to ParisThis is the story of those three young American military buddies travelling through Europe on August 21, 2015 when they thwarted a terrorist attack on Thalys Train #9364. It led to their being honored as heroes in France and America, and now has become a major studio movie from a four-time Oscar-winning filmmaker.

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The risk part was in the novel idea Eastwood had in casting the real guys themselves, all obviously non-actors, in the leads of the movie. Anthony Sadler, Oregon National Guardsman Alex Skarlatos, and U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone acquit themselves as well as you can expect, especially, as I say in my video review above, when they are being directed in action scenes by a guy who is known as one of Hollywood’s great action stars. It is not easy playing yourself on screen, and though stars like John Wayne tended to play a persona, this is something entirely different and it definitely gives the film the authentic feel of a docudrama — at least for the main event, which is only teased throughout the movie and actually occurs about an hour or so into it.

The actual film might have not amounted to much if well-known stars were cast, so this was the right way to go. If there is any problem with the concept, it is that it feels padded to make it work for an hour and a half on screen. Thus, we are treated to non-remarkable flashbacks where the trio meet as kids in school and have to deal with all the typical things most kids and friends do. The middle part of the movie is essentially a travelogue of Europe, with the trio on that soon-to-be fateful trip picking up girls, seeing the sights, talking about life, etc.

Only when they board the train does the film hit its stride. Fortunately, Eastwood is a master director of this stuff and the re-creations of the events and attack are meticulous. In addition to the three main heroes, Eastwood’s idea of casting the real deals extends to Mark Moogalian, a passenger on the train who first tries to stop the terrorist; he is critically wounded and nearly killed in the attempt. His wife Isabelle also plays herself, and actually I thought Moogalian takes the real acting honors here. I was surprised to find out it was the man himself playing the role.  There are some pro actors along for the journey including Jenna Fisher, Judy Greer, Thomas Lennon and Tony Hale in those early flashback scenes, but they are upstaged by the first-timers. The child actors who play them in that section are actually the most unrealistic of the bunch, and look like they might have come right out of a Disney Channel show.

First-time scripter Dorothy Blyskal (adapting the trio’s own book of the event) does what she can to make this all feel like a movie, but she’s shackled by the idea that this is basically not art imitating life, but life imitating life. The lack of the usual Hollywood showboating in favor of reality is admirable, if dull in some spots, but the idea of doing this is audacious and makes it all worth checking out — a curio from a world-class director who at 87 still knows how to change things up.

Jessica Meier, Tim Moore, Kristina Rivera, and Eastwood produced the Village Roadshow and Malpaso production. Warner Bros releases the film Friday.

Do you plan to see The 15:17 to Paris? Let us know what you think.