Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG for Thematic Elements involving Perilous Situations, and for some Nudity, Language, brief Drug References and Smoking
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Robert Zemeckis & Christopher Browne
(based on the book TO REACH THE CLOUDS by Philippe Petit)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz & Steve Valentine
Every year, there are films based on incredible true stories that fall by the wayside. Much like the visually stunning EVEREST and Ron Howard’s IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, Robert Zemeckis’s THE WALK is a drama that sounds primed for award nominations but likely won’t receive any. That’s not to say that THE WALK is a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, because it’s not. However, the elongated running time and so-so characters are a bit trying on the viewer’s patience. At least, this is true for the first half of the film. As soon as the wire goes up though, the movie becomes an incredible cinematic work of art. I imagine that THE WALK plays far better on the big screen than on the biggest TV set you could find on the market. This might be part of the reason for my somewhat underwhelmed reaction to this movie sitting alongside EVEREST as good but not great.
In the early 1970’s, performer Philippe Petit made his living through circus-like antics on the streets of Paris. Philippe eventually finds a passion in wire-walking and quickly becomes obsessed with two massive towers that are under construction in New York City. After rounding up a couple of friends to join him, Philippe makes his way to New York and begins to enact a carefully calculated plan to string up a tightrope between the Twin Towers. Of course, Philippe’s small coup will encounter turbulence: setting up the equipment will be tricky, guards patrol the building, and the sheer life-threatening nature of his stunt is staggering. Philippe merely wants to perform something beautiful and something that nobody will be able to take their eyes off of.
Director Robert Zemeckis has crafted plenty of great dramas in the past on what it means to be human (FORREST GUMP, CAST AWAY, etc.). THE WALK has a similar sense about showing off what one man can accomplish with the right motivation, incredible vision and unwavering nerve. As Philippe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt essentially becomes a living cartoon character (true to his real-life source of inspiration). He has a charm to him, in spite of being a complete and utter douchebag at times. There’s definitely an insane spark in Levitt’s performance and he convinces us that this French lunatic is more than willing to risk his own life in order to thrill others (as well as himself). The rest of the performers don’t stick out nearly as much. Philippe’s team members merely come off as bland means to an exciting end. Besides Levitt’s starring role, the only other cast members of note are Ben Kingsley (as a mentor during a handful of scenes) and Charlotte Le Bon (as a half-assed love interest who really deserved more screen time).
THE WALK suffers from a pacing problem in terms of its story. The build-up during the first half of the film is a tad too meticulous, slow, and dusty. One only wonders what Zemeckis could have done to spice up the material a bit more, but then comes to realize that the first half is mainly filler for a two-hour running time. There are good moments, but the first hour mostly feels like forced C-level melodrama. However, all of this changes as soon as Philippe treks to New York and begins a carefully detailed execution of his elaborate scheme. These moments (in which disguises, sneaking around, and lots of special equipment are used) almost feel like a heist thriller where the money is replaced by attention from city onlookers.
Finally, THE WALK reaches its height (quite literally) when Philippe steps out onto the wire. What started off as a C-level melodrama/B-grade heist thriller suddenly turns into an A-grade work of beauty. CGI and green screen are masterfully used to give the appearance that Levitt is really scaling a tightrope over 100 stories high. This final third of the film is incredible and translates the sheer joy that Philippe must have felt in pulling off his highly dangerous and incredible (as well as foolish and insane) stunt. This final act belongs among the best sequences of Zemeckis’s career and I can’t help but wish that the build-up to them had been more impactful. Still, viewers with a fear of heights are sure to find themselves on the edge of their seats during the stunning finale.
As a whole, there are things to praise about THE WALK as well as flaws that keep the film from reaching its full potential. The 70’s New York atmosphere is captured very well with attention to detail and wholly convincing special effects work. Levitt’s performance as Philippe is pretty much everything you could hope for and seems true to the real-life figure. The heist-like scenes in which his crew trespass to elaborately set up the equipment are fun to watch and the finale is simply amazing to behold. On a sour note, every other performance seems sidelined and the first half drags at a glacial pace. I wish that the chemistry between Levitt’s Philippe and Bon’s Annie was given more time to develop as it might have made for a more impactful romantic angle (which feels half-assed in its current state). Pacing problems and unremarkable performances taken into consideration, THE WALK is a good one-and-done kind of film. More than worth a watch for the finale alone, but not a film I’m likely to revisit many times in the future.