The Walk is one of those films that’s too good to hate, yet too bad to enjoy. If you’ve ever met a stranger at a party who, although superficially interesting, populated your conversation entirely with cliches and banalities, then you have some sense of The Walk. Though the last act is engaging as pure cinematic spectacle, the 80 minutes leading up to it are comprised solely of conflict-free tedium. The film might be functional as broad popcorn fare, but those familiar with the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire would be better served revisiting that picture instead.
That The Walk does not compare favorably to Man on Wire is a particularly difficult fact to avoid, as Zemeckis seems to borrow from it in all the wrong places. While he cribs some stylistic cues from the ’08 doc, such as a Chaplin-esque silent sequence early on, he overlooks the prior film’s most compelling structural choice, namely its framing device. Wire stretches the story of Petit’s team of international accomplices breaking into the World Trade Center to stage their “coup” over the majority of its 94 minutes, inserting background interviews into the action in order to maintain suspense. Walk, on the contrary, devotes a comparable amount of screen time to a whitewashed backstory that fails to add much to the narrative and drags noticeably. Rather than lean on Wire’s structural accomplishment, Zemeckis inexplicably chooses to fracture his narrative with images of Petit atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch, delivering monologues that trail off into purposeless voice-over narration. To say that this is a lazy script would be an understatement, but then again nobody’s buying tickets to IMAX theaters because they’re interested in screenwriting.
Strong performances anchor what is an otherwise unremarkable recounting of a remarkable story. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does the best he can with what he’s been given, expertly mirroring the physicality of the actual Philippe Petit. Unfortunately, his believability is hampered by a terrible wig and the most distracting contacts this side of Black Mass, and few could fault him for hamming up a poorly affected accent on the more ridiculous lines of his Franglais dialogue, because sometimes you have to make your own fun. Ben Kingsley is a highlight as Petit’s mentor Papa Rudy, and Charlotte Le Bon infuses a spark of life into her meet-cute with Gordon-Levitt until the script relegates her to nagging-girlfriend-prop status. The rest of the supporting cast suffers from underdefined characterization and some absurd dialogue, but, by the time they’re fully introduced, the 3D high-wire show is soon to take the center ring to distract the audience from the script’s shortcomings.
Cinematographer Daiusz Wolski shows a clear mastery of 3D and large-format media, but knowledge does not necessarily preclude overuse. When early two-shots of Kingsley and Gordon-Levitt are painstakingly rendered in three dimensions, otherwise revelatory shots from a thousand-foot rooftop inevitably lose some of their impact. More damning still, the lovingly recreated towers and long departed cityscape would’ve done the CGI team credit had they not been tasked with a preponderance of things-flying-at-your-face shots that cheat the significance of their accomplishment in rendering the height of Petit’s wire in visceral detail.
If the film fails as narrative, it does so in spite of the visual virtuosity of its last 40 minutes. There can be no question that The Walk is at times visually breathtaking, but its script’s adherence to a staidly traditional structure robs the narrative of all vitality, leaving a band of ill-defined characters to arrive at a heavily telegraphed end that deprives the audience of any catharsis. If you have a young child that refuses to watch documentaries, this might be the best way for you to share a truly inspirational story of determination and ingenuity with your offspring. Otherwise, your best options are to show up near the end or stay home and watch Man on Wire. Rated PG for perilous situations, some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking.