Review: 'The Walk' no towering achievement


French tightrope walker Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire stroll between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center is solid gold film material. It was death-defying. It was illegal. It was, in its own poetic terms, one of the 20th century's greatest works of art.

Like Petit's stratospheric ballet, James Marsh's exuberant 2008 documentary "Man on Wire" set the bar sky-high and reached the goal. Following Petit's break-in at the nearly complete construction site with his crew of inexperienced accomplices, Marsh combined interesting textures of storytelling.Marsh gave us the suspense of a bank heist thriller, the daredevil excitement of Evel Knievel flying a jet-powered motorcycle and flicks of black humor as the plan more and more exceeded the boundaries of common sense.

"Man on Wire" won the documentary Oscar, and for years since it has made me eager to see a big-budget Hollywood take on Petit's amazing midair stroll.

Now it has arrived. I'd love to say that I was delighted by Robert Zemeckis' "The Walk" from start to finish. But I can't. Not that I was disappointed. Simply underwhelmed. It just didn't click for me.

Forgettable fun: The tone here is innocuous, forgettable fun. In real life, Petit was a flawed, edgy narcissist, the sort of rebel qualities that make us want to know more about him. In the new version (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt in a Gallic accent and Windex-blue contact lenses) he is different from a standard action hero and stock good guy largely by being exceptionally cute. He introduces us to the story by speaking to the camera on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, a flashback to a time when the Twin Towers were still the skyline's summit.

Zemeckis, who has given us copious family-friendly comedies, tells the story with lots and lots of added sugar. As he moves the story forward, rushing to establish a whole host of characters and situations,he returns us again and again to the charming Petit on top of Lady Liberty, addressing us about the next plot twist. No worries, folks; while this quixotic undertaking is danger-filled, not much is actually at stake.

Origins: We follow Petit from his late 1960s origins as a street mime and juggler to his mastering acrobatic skills under the mentorship of Papa Rudy, a circus veteran played by Ben Kingsley in full charm mode. While Petit falls in love with Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon), another street performer, he is largely driven by mad romantic dreams. He considers himself a rare artist in pursuit of glory and life-affirming creative beauty. He walks between the peaks of Notre Dame cathedral, but wants to go higher. When he sees news reports of New York City's twin skyscrapers, the world's tallest buildings at the time, he begins developing a scheme to enter secretly and walk from one edge to the other, 1,350 feet off the ground.

It's a remarkable project, but "The Walk" doesn't heat it up to boiling. It features striking visuals (though some of the computer generated effects make Gordon Levitt look as cartoonish as Zemeckis' "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"). Yet it offers the shallowest sort of storytelling. For the first 90 minutes, the story has none of the gravity of a high-wire walk. It simply introduces us to colorful, superficial New York stereotypes who want to help Petit or could stop him. When he essentially confesses his break-in strategy to the customs officer checking him in to the city, the cop laughs and waves him through. Yes. Airport security was lighter those days, but come on.

In the final 25 minutes we gaze down 110 digitally created floors while Petit walks, kneels and dances on the high wire. That is by far the deepest thing in the film.