When Clint Eastwood, a director whose signature aesthetic includes his proud disinterest in multiple takes and giving actors notes, set himself to make a film about which the single most noteworthy fact is that the lead roles are being filled by non-professionals, the question was never going to be "is this bad?", but "so just how bad is it?" And in the case of The 15:17 to Paris, the answer is: very. The film, Eastwood's third consecutive "ripped from the headlines of a couple two, three years ago" project, is the story about three American friends who were among the handful of passengers throwing themselves into harm's way to stop a lone gunman and possible terrorist on 21 August 2015, on a train between Amsterdam and Paris. There are two twists: one is that the three Americans, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos, are playing themselves; the other is that because the story of stopping the train attacker takes something like seven minutes to depict, start to finish, screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal has been obliged to turn the movie into something completely different. The idea was, I think, to make the film a tribute to enduring friendships, showing how the boys met in 2005 in junior high and how their relationship together is in part the source of their bravery on the train. In execution, it's a real shitty, structurally inept biography.

It's tough to say whether the acting or the story is the greater problem. The acting, at least, shows up first. The film opens with its best material, a montage of the three men walking through the train depot in tight images of feet, hands, stairs, and it has an appealing impressionistic quality. For three whole minutes, I thought all was well. And then, the narration starts, with Sadler telling us about how he and Stone and Skarlatos always had each other's backs and such boilerplate, and he can't. Stop. Laughing. If it were "non-actor has the nervous giggles", I might even be willing to find it charming. But instead it's very, very obviously his best attempt to seem relaxed and casual, and it is absolutely fucking poison. There is nothing human or normal about it: it's studied and plastic in the worst way, and it instantly turned me against the film. Not to mention that narration will fail hereafter to be a significant part of the film's strategy, and when it finally shows up again, it's not Sadler.

From this smoking crater, the film spends the next 20 minutes or so spinning and reeling and choking. The first act shows the boys coming together as a trio - Spencer (William Jennings) and Alek (Bryce Gheisar) were already friends, in prone to getting in trouble, and they were attracted to Anthony (Paul-Mikél Williams) for being a much cooler version of themselves - and bonding through antagonising the principal (Thomas Lennon) of their private Christian school. It sounds so plain, I don't know if I could possibly explain just how extravagantly terrible it is. The acting is a problem again, though this time, it's actual actors responsible for being dreadful. In particular, there's the sorry matter of Judy Greer as Spencer's mom and Jenna Fischer as Alek's mom; they meet with the principal in a scene that's flatfooted in every way - dialogue, framing, cheaply bright lighting, and especially performance. These are three strong performers, and yet the whole thing feels like an improv troupe was given the audience prompt "be terrible actor". Greer is especially terrible, I am heartbroken to say, particularly on her big line "My God is bigger than your statistics", the punchline to this hideous, misbegotten puke of exposition. Greer delivers it with an extremely serious voice and a metallic glint in her eye, like she figured that being in an Eastwood movie was her excuse to trot out a Dirty Harry impression.

There's absolutely no reason for this to be terrible, but it is. There are moments that just scream and plead to have something interesting made of them: Spencer showing his large collection of realistic toy guns, for example, which feels like it should be some key moment that tells us about the boy and his world (there's a connection between religiosity and militarism that the film notices and finds thoroughly unworthy of examination. It seems like there was every opportunity to make this film a good companion piece to American Sniper in that respect - or several other respects, for that matter - but there's just no meat on these bones). There are moments that are nothing but wheel-spinning that reiterate, yep, these friends are friendly. There are beats where Judy Greer makes me embarrassed that I've spent the last 15 years rooting for her to get better roles.

The visual cheapness and terrible writing in this opening gives way to a film that's merely no damn good at all, as the boys age up, go their separate ways, and eventually rejoin for a European vacation that ends in bloodshed. Putting it that way makes it seems like The 15:17 to Paris has narrative structure or plot momentum, neither of which are the case. Instead, it's basically a shapeless hang-out movie, sort of like Eastwood and Blyskal wanted to make a Richard Linklater film, but didn't have the first clue of how to do that. It's possible that this was the approach chosen to minimise the fact that the three stars can't act - like, really can't act, especially Skarlatos, who is quite obviously being kept as far on the sidelines as Eastwood can manage for a co-lead - and to make a virtue of the one thing they do have, which is an extremely easygoing, charming comfort with each other. And I'll admit that, as disastrous as they go whenever forced to deal with unabashed dialogue or plot points, a lot of the movie idles around in a simple bantering mode where the three men just chat about what's going on around them. And as far as that goes, they're fine - no worse than the non-professional actors who made up the bulk of the Gran Torino cast, anyway, and I remain comitted to the notion that that's one of Eastwood's better films in the 21st Century. It's just that the film has to make itself aimless and boring in order to accommodate them. It wasn't until the thrilling sequence where they all order gelato that I finally got beaten down by it, but this is a film made almost entirely of filler, and particularly dopey thriller, at that (just before the white-knuckle gelato-ordering scene, there's a slow-moving montage set to an elevator muzak cover of "Volare").

Several hours into the 94-minute film, it arrives at the train attack, and suddenly Eastwood is awake, using his best traits as a director: a lean, non-sensational approach to action, a fascination with how people do shit rather than what they're thinking about while they do it. It's a genuinely strong action setpiece, and for precious few minutes, you can see the movie Eastwood wanted to make, a tribute to normal people leaping before they look, doing what needs to be done because they're capable of doing it. But it takes much too long to get there, and the film's desire to honor Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone as human beings runs afoul of its need to position them as the protagonists of a drama. It as least has the decency to be an odd experiment on paper, but The 15:17 to Paris is too goddamn boring, and surprisingly too loose and messy as a piece of filmmaking to actually function in practice. It's like the whole movie has cheapened and dumbed itself down to accommodate the leads' lack of natural onscreen talent, and the result is the shoddiest thing Eastwood has ever directed. By far.