Joseph Gordon-Levitt Wows In "The Walk"

The last time director Robert Zemeckis teamed with an actor that rose to fame on an NBC sitcom, “Back To The Future” was the result. The film was weeks into production when “Family Ties” star Michael J. Fox famously stepped into Marty McFly’s Nikes for an embattled Eric Stoltz, shuttling back and forth between “Ties” and “Future” sets for weeks on end. Working 20-plus-hour days, Fox improbably turned in a serendipitous performance that wouldn’t just be career-defining, but era-defining.

Zemeckis and Fox remain inexorably chained to “Back To The Future” and its noble sequels, never quite able to escape the series’ shadow. Zemeckis in particular has since found enormous success with “Forrest Gump” and “Cast Away,” but nothing as eternal as his original trip to Hill Valley, CA. Where many movies struggle to work on a single level, “Back To The Future” still works on all, a marvel of screenwriting, acting, special effects, and pop culture mythmaking.

It’s probably just coincidence, then, that Joseph Gordon-Levitt – star of Zemeckis’ latest, “The Walk” – also rose to prominence on an NBC sitcom (“3rd Rock From The Sun”). It’s probably a coincidence that the actor’s first big-budget turn as a leading man was in a time travel movie (“Looper”). And it’s probably just a coincidence that his first acting role was on – yes – “Family Ties.”

In spite of happenstance, “The Walk” doesn’t quite recapture Zemeckis’ 80s magic. The film tells the same story that 2008 Oscar-winning documentary “Man On Wire” did, that of French wirewalker Philippe Petit (played by Gordon-Levitt here) and his insane 1974 stunt that saw him illegally mount and walk a wire between the rooftops of New York City’s World Trade Center Towers.

A fourth-wall-breaking Gordon-Levitt narrates the film in character from atop the Statue Of Liberty, a creative choice that works in spite of itself. It’s sugary, but it makes for strong connective tissue between Petit and “his towers” and France and the United States.

The screenplay – penned by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne – begins with Petit paying his dues as a Parisian street performer. With the help of some luscious black and white photography, the picture soon expands Petit’s world to color through his discovery of wirewalking. We see him learn his craft from bullheaded circus man Rudolf Omankowsky (Ben Kingsley) and fall in love with a fellow street performer (Charlotte Le Bon), each stoking his desire to do something big. Important.

With the first hour reserved for Petit’s backstory and the origins of his World Trade Center “coup,” the movie falls into a dangerously cozy biopic feel that focuses too much on Petit’s whimsy and not enough on his egomania (a juxtaposition that made “Man On Wire” so exhilarating).

Most of the movie’s power is unsurprisingly in its second half, painstakingly recreating one of history’s great heists. Although nothing was stolen and no one was harmed, the amount of planning and coordination undertaken by Petit and his crew begs the word: “heist.”

Said crew is comprised of Annie, two Frenchmen (Clement Sibony, Cesar Domboy) and four wild card Americans (James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine, Benedict Samuel). As the octet infiltrates the World Trade Center to string a wire between the North and South Towers, Zemeckis ratchets up the suspense to mixed results.

The pacing is frequently confounding, spending three minutes here and five minutes there on team members hiding from guards. More problematically, no one but Petit is a fully realized character.

But Gordon-Levitt is wondrous in the role, shouldering all the drama capably and proving a more dexterous performer than anyone imagined. Both his energy and French accent are spot on, his screen presence so inviting that when the climactic scene comes, we can’t help but be terrified for him.

Zemeckis shoots that sequence magnificently, even if some of the special effects are less than seamless. Numerous shots have the weightlessness of a video game cutscene, but considering that the director was working with a budget smaller than “Back To The Future” (when adjusted for inflation), it’s an impressive re-creation of Petit’s walk.

And for all of its faults, re-creation is something “The Walk” essentially makes poetry. For anyone that ever visited the Twin Towers, they’re recreated here so faithfully that the experience will be like reconnecting with a long-lost friend. Petit’s story was a small but significant part of the buildings’ legacy, and they’re drawn here so beautifully that it only deepens the connection – between Petit, the Towers, and us.

“Man On Wire” remains the best movie about Philippe Petit, but the redundancy inherent in “The Walk” isn’t crippling. In some ways, it’s an asset, allowing Zemeckis’ version of Petit’s walk to stand on its own, to function as a frequently lovely postscript to James Marsh’s documentary.

There’s no need to choose between the two. Watch both.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 30, 2015
Studio: TriStar Pictures (Sony)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Clement Sibony, Cesar Domboy, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine, Benedict Samuel
MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking)