Living in the age of IMAX has produced some of the most exciting cinematic environments in movie history, enhancing the experience of the average movie-goer with dazzling visuals and beyond. And yet, right now, director Robert Zemeckis may have raised the bar to an unparalleled level with his new fact-based drama THE WALK. While it isn’t without its problems, the film is most certainly one of the most unique and harrowing movie experiences you’ll have all year.
The film begins with French street performer Philippe Petit, as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, speaking directly to the audience, as he begins to narrate the sequence of events that led to his dream of walking a wire between the two towers of New York City. We follow his early days, hustling for cash on the streets of Paris, juggling on a unicycle and being chased by police. Eventually, we learn that his fixation of wire-walking begins at a very early age after seeing famed tightrope star Rudy Omankowski (later nicknamed Papa Rudy, played by Ben Kingsley) at a local circus, and the two develop a mentor/mentee relationship.
Robert Zemeckis has provided us with a wildly diverse selection of films over the years, ranging from BACK TO THE FUTURE, to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, and even FORREST GUMP. He rarely disappoints. The first two acts of this film almost dispel that notion entirely. You immediately sense trouble when the film opens to a cartoonish French accent delivered by Gordon-Levitt, as he stands upon the torch of the Statue of Liberty with New York City looming in the background. It’s cloying, but eventually becomes bearable. When the story shifts to Petit’s early life in Paris, Zemeckis’ notorious misuse of music rears its ugly head, and the film slowly teeters on the brink of caricature. The saving grace of these early scenes is Gordon-Levitt, who imbues the character with an effortless charm that bolsters a very clunky script.
Despite the poorly-chosen music cues and the exasperating effort to identify the movie’s tone, the film still manages to reel the audience back in with a masterful cast. In these moments, Ben Kingsley proves once more that he is the most useful actor in Hollywood, adding a more multi-dimensional element to the story with his portrayal of Petit’s mentor Papa Rudy. Kingsley, ever the professional, never allows his performance to venture too far into parody. As Petit’s girlfriend Annie, French actress Charlotte Le Bon also adds a graceful and mature touchstone for the audience to cling to when the film begins to falter.
Once the story shifts to New York, the film immediately changes pace and starts to find its footing. We see Petit, along with his French co-horts, frantically plotting a way to execute their scheme, enlisting a few eager American comrades (played by Ben Schwartz, James Badge Dale, and Steve Valentine) in the process. It should be said that yet again, Badge Dale is a criminally under-used talent, stealing virtually every scene in which he appears. (Seriously, somebody give this guy a franchise.)
The build-up to the main event gives Zemeckis a chance to show some of the fallout of Petit’s obsession. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is able to keep the character in the audience’s good graces while also relaying the selfish and relentless aspects of Petit’s endeavor. It’s a high-wire act to be sure (pun intended). Once the pieces are in place, and the stage is set, we’re treated to a dazzling and stomach-churning visual spectacle that allows Zemeckis to prove his worth in the realm of 3-D.
When we see Petit on the wire, and the tense, nerve-wracking suspense kicks into high gear, it’s jaw-dropping. The use of 3-D will make you feel like you’re up there with him, staring death in the face, and it’s impossible to look away. Zemeckis doubles down on the harrowing feat, allowing the camera to capture every small and heart-stopping step, all while illustrating the vast and complex maze of New York rooftops below.
It’s truly a love letter to New York, while also serving as a small but heartfelt acknowledgement of 9/11 with class and respect. It’s here where the film’s score amplifies and elevates the story, and it feels like everything that transpired before this point was simply a shoddy means to a masterful end.
While The Walk isn’t perfect, it’s still a rare and imaginative gem among a sea of superhero films and reboots. Zemeckis, at 64, proves once again why he’s one of the most inventive storytellers in modern filmmaking, and his capabilities as a visual director are unmatched.