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'Walk' is great on effects, light on character development

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DON'T LOOK DOWN The strength of 'The Walk' is the acrophobia-inducing special effects.
  • DON'T LOOK DOWN The strength of 'The Walk' is the acrophobia-inducing special effects.

In IMAX and 3-D, The Walk is lethal. Robert Zemeckis, a technical wizard, directs material treated in James Marsh's 2008 documentary Man on Wire, the true account of French acrobat Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the World Trade Center's twin towers. This ultimate high-wire act, performed 110 stories up, was a free, illegal show for New Yorkers.

Here, the resurrected WTC looks insubstantial, sometimes like a hologram, sometimes like the lenticular image on a souvenir postcard. But the view Zemeckis wreaks of the potential plummet will affect many viewers with the palm-sweats, and worse. The walk sequence is engineered as exquisite torture. If it's not the actual 45 minutes in length that Petit (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) spent over the abyss, it seems that long. Just when it's almost over and relief is setting in, the nerveless Petit raises his balance pole—it weighed 55 pounds, incidentally—makes an about-face and goes for another stroll. There may not be another director alive with such an instinct for how to use 3-D for punch.

Yet The Walk isn't a movie that seeks our childish sense of wonder; it's a movie that talks to us like we're a pack of kids. It's powdered with sugar. Petit explains it all with the forced, antic enthusiasm of a birthday clown. In 3-D, Petit is flat as a silhouette against the synthetic New York harbor background.

After the heist-like set-up and with the terrifying walk underway, you forgive Zemeckis' Pepé Le Pew–worthy visions of French life. As heist-movie procedural, the film brings up matters we hadn't anticipated: the weight and unruliness of the cable as it is rigged in the dark, the persistence of security guards, and even an angry, if artificial, seagull menacing Petit as he lies down for a little rest in the middle of the air.

Petit and his pals declare themselves outlaws and anarchists, but they don't do anything tough. In The Walk, we certainly get the wire, but we don't get the man.

'The Walk' opens in wide release in the North Bay on Oct. 9.

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