In 1974 high-wire performer Philippe Petit accomplished the miraculous feat of walking between the twin towers. The event was documented in James Marsh’s superb 2008 film Man on Wire which presented the story as much as a heist story as a triumph of one man’s dreams and talents.
The film must have made an impression on Robert Zemeckis as he now presents his bombastic version of Petit’s stunt with The Walk. Joseph Gordon-Levitt slips in some blue contact lenses, dons a black outfit and a ludicrous french accent to become Petit. Ben Kingsley also turns up in a supporting role as Petit’s mentor. Kingsley’s accent is yet to be determined but seems like another nail in the performers coffin containing all those performances where he doesn’t really care what he’s doing.
Zemeckis, who also takes on writing duties, is clearly in love with “the walk” itself. So enraptured by the event itself the rest of the film seems like a matter of course which is dispensed with as quickly as possible so we can just get to it. So the film is clearly structured into those lovely three acts. Part one is straight forward biography. Part two a heist comedy. Part three the climax. The first two/thirds allow little room for character development. Petit’s “accomplices” are introduced in voice over and and in some cases only having a handful of lines. Relying instead of caricature such as the “stoner” who makes jokes about things being “high” and saying “man” at the end of every sentence.
That should come as no surprise though. This is a Robert Zemeckis film. Despite giving us classics like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? he’s the man who also hit us on the head with A Christmas Carol, Beowulf and Flight. So it is to pointed out that Paris is in France, American tourists are defined by wearing cowboy hats, the use of English throughout is repeatedly explained away by Petit telling everyone to speak the lingo for when they go to America, even New Yorkers all just sound like Joey Tribbiani’s extended family. The most irksome thing of all though is Zemeckis decision to have Petit narrate the story to us through little segues where he talks directly to camera, whilst standing on top of the Statue of Liberty noless with the towers stood in the background. Every time we cut back it just looks ridiculous and reminds you how silly Levitt’s performance kind of is. His Petit comes across as a massively egotistical performer, which is fine but he’s also quite irritating as a protagonist.
For the climatic walk itself it has to be said that Zemeckis does manage to succeed in the only reason he really made the film which was to make the viewers feel sick. Watching the film on a 75 ft’ IMAX screen you’re given precious little room to look away as you spend a good forty five minutes up on the roof. Everytime Petit indiscriminately jumps over the side of the building to rig something wincing is bound to kick in. I for one was sweaty palmed and weak legged by the end. This effect though really comes down to the combined talents of Zemeckis’ effects team and DOP Dariusz Wolski. Often your gaze might just look off in the distance to view the details of the city as opposed to Petit himself who throughout the walk never looks anything but badly green-screened.
With Flight Zemeckis put the best part of the film up front with the spectacular plane crash leaving nothing but a run-of-the-mill, cliche ridden addiction drama in its wake. At least with The Walk he leaves the films selling point till the end. Worth it only if you plan to see it on as big a screen as you can otherwise The Walk is a hugely perfunctory film with poor characterisation, poor plot developments, a man with a fantastic mustache who looks uncannily like Jeff Goldblum and some laughable performances. Anyone who has seen James Marsh’ Man on Wire will be familiar with how the story ends, needless to say here things are given a bit more of a Hollywood polish to smooth over some character relationships before closing as tribute to the towers themselves. A notion which was entirely expected and warranted but which still feels forced when it comes all the same.
Watch Man on Wire instead.
2 / 5
Dir: Robert Zemeckis
Scr: Christopher Browne, Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale
Prd: Jake Rapke, Tom Rothman, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis
DOP: Dariusz Wolski
Music: Alan Silvestri
Run time: 123 mins
The Walk is in IMAX cinemas and on general release from 9 October.