Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 27, 2015)
Based on a true story, 2015’s The Walk takes us back to the early 1970s. In Paris, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) struggles to make a living as a street performer. One day he sees a photo of the newly-constructed World Trade Center towers in New York City, and inspiration strikes.
What does Philippe plan to do to make his mark? He aspires to wire-walk across the span from one tower to the other. We follow the methods Philippe and his team use to plan this stunt and execute it.
Though the movie intrigued me, I didn’t see The Walk theatrically. This occurred for two reasons. First, I feared I’d suffer from motion sickness. This affects me primarily at “super-shakycam” movies like Cloverfield, but based on The Walk’s use of 3D, I thought I might suffer the same nauseated fate.
That wasn’t the main reason I skipped The Walk on the big screen, though. Instead, I failed to view it because it simply didn’t last long in theaters. Though I live in a major metropolitan area, The Walk came and went awfully quickly. By the time I’d heard enough about it to pique my interest, the movie had vanished.
I don’t know exactly why The Walk failed to connect with US audiences. Director Robert Zemeckis has enjoyed pretty consistent commercial success – so much that the miserable box office returns of The Walk seem stunning.
Of Zemeckis’s 17 directorial efforts, The Walk made less money than all but one of them: 1978’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Even 1980’s largely forgotten Used Cars performed better – and that’s without adjusting grosses for inflation.
I don’t mean to obsess over box office, but I simply can’t figure out why The Walk flopped so hard. It’s a movie made by a director with decades of hits behind him and it includes a good cast. The Walk also got fairly wide distribution and received excellent reviews.
Whatever the case, The Walk did bomb, and I can’t say I regard that as a tragedy. While the film redeems itself somewhat by its end, the path to that point tests patience.
Walk presents a more severe three-act structure than most movies, as each section focuses on different goals. Act One introduces Philippe and sets him on his path, Act Two shows the planning and set-up for the walk, and Act Three concentrates on the stunt itself.
This means Walk nearly feels like three different films. Act One comes across as dreamy and romantic, while Act Two offers a slick, Ocean’s 11 vibe. Act Three turns more into a suspense story, as we follow the tension that relates to Philippe’s stunt.
Unquestionably, Act Three fares best, as it easily tops the first three-fourths of the movie. The truth is that I don’t think the story offers enough substance to fill a two-hour movie – at least not as explored here. Even with all that time at its disposal, Walk never manages to make Philippe into an especially rich character. He comes across as a generic Man with a Dream, and not one whose motives or aspirations seem all that clear. I guess we’re supposed to buy into his goals because it’s a movie – we never understand Philippe in a strong manner.
This makes Act One extremely slow going. The romance between Philippe and Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) lacks sparkle, and Philippe’s apprenticeship with master wire-walker “Papa Rudy” (Ben Kingsley) feels perfunctory.
Matters improve during the more fast-paced Act Two, but not to a tremendous degree. The supporting characters remain bland and forgettable, and Zemeckis can’t deliver a “heist plan” in a provocative manner.
Much of the fun from Ocean’s 11 came from the cast of thieves assembled and all the machinations that went into the scheme’s gestation, but Walk lacks any of the same sizzle or excitement. As Philippe and company plan and execute “the walk”, the movie occasionally shows some life, but it usually remains dull.
This leaves Act Three to redeem the film, and as I alluded earlier, it does – sort of. Honestly, the first 90 minutes seem so sluggish that almost nothing could forgive them, but the climax comes pretty close.
We all know how the story ends, so Act Three lacks the “will he survive?” tension that otherwise might exist. Nonetheless, Zemeckis manages to wring a lot of drama out of the walk, largely via the “you are there” photography that places the viewer out on the wire with Philippe. The movie brings the audience into the adventure and makes the finale a delightfully nerve-wracking experience.
The Walk also handles the specter of 9/11 in a tasteful, emotional way. The movie doesn’t actively remind us of that day’s events – indeed, it doesn’t even mention the date or what happened.
Instead, we get oblique reminders. It doesn’t seem like this should work, but it’s surprisingly emotional, and I appreciate the simplicity and restraint involved.
If only the first three-fourths of The Walk were as good as its final third, I’d give it a wholehearted recommendation. Since so much of the movie plods, though, I find myself torn. The last act works awfully well, but it takes patience to get there.