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‘The Walk’: Star is charming, high-wire visuals stunning

You have to learn to run before you walk.

It also might help if you learn how to ride a unicycle, juggle, tumble, achieve pure excellence in the art of balance through biomechanics, master certain technical skills like tying special knots, map out a plan worthy of a bank heist — and find it within yourself to step into skies with nothing but a narrow cable between you and certain death.

You’d have to perfect all those skills and more if the walk we’re talking about is “The Walk,” the amazing true-life story of one Philippe Petit, a mad genius of a tightrope walker who in 1974 schemed his way into the brand-new World Trade Center’s twin towers, made his way to the roof with a small band of accomplices, hastily constructed a rig — and took a 140-foot stroll some 100 stories above the ground.

And then turned around and walked back. And then…

Sorry if I didn’t issue a spoiler alert, but the story of “The Walk” has been well chronicled through the years, from the media frenzy that surrounded Petit in the 1970s to the brilliant documentary from 2008 called “Man On Wire.”

In fact, as breathtakingly gorgeous and well acted as “The Walk” is, if you had to choose between the doc and this solid fictionalized version, I’d say go with the documentary.

Robert Zemeckis (the “Back to the Future” movies, “Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away” “The Polar Express”) is a gifted storyteller who has always embraced the technology available, and he delivers an exciting thrill ride that might have you burying your head in your hands or looking away from the screen if you’re not thrilled with heights. (This is one of those movies you really should see on the biggest screen possible, i.e., IMAX if you can. The 3-D isn’t great because 3-D is NEVER great, but there are a couple of impressive moments, e.g., when a thick thread of cable sprang loose and seemed to hurtle off the screen and right above my head.)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt occasionally gets a little cartoonish with the French (and the French accent when he’s speaking English) but he continues to build on his impressive film resume with an impish, charming performance as Philippe, who says he never feels more alive than when he’s on the wire, far above the ground, with no harness and no guarantee he’ll make it to the end of a walk.

Philippe narrates his story after the fact, from atop the Statue of Liberty, the Twin Towers gleaming in the background. It’s a gimmick, but it’s an effective gimmick.

We flash back to Philippe’s days in Paris as a street performer, including a meet-cute with a beautiful aspiring pop singer named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and the introduction of an obligatory gruff father figure/mentor (Ben Kingsley, working one of those Kingsley accents that seem to be a mash-up from about three different countries.

“The Walk” ambles a little too casually in the Parisian scenes, but the excitement level is amped up once Philippe is in New York City and he quickly assembles a team of accomplices, with the main qualification being a willingness to break the law in the name of artistic expression and do whatever Philippe says. (In a clever touch, one of the guys is deathly afraid of heights, so of course he ends up performing the most harrowing tasks outside of actually making the walk. It’s as if we have a representative on the adventure with us, constantly pointing out how crazy this whole thing is.)

The last 30 minutes or so are all about the walk. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is beautiful, the score is sentimental but well-suited to the visuals, and Gordon-Levitt does some of his best acting when he’s out on the wire and mostly silent, his face glowing from the sheer crazy joy he’s feeling.

Some 14 years after the events of 9/11, filmmakers no longer shy away from references to the Twin Towers if a film happens to be set prior to 2001. Here, though, they’re practically characters in the movie, and while it’s impossible to ever forget for a second the fate of the thousands who were in those towers on one of the worst days in American history, “The Walk” ends on a lovely, golden note of tribute.

[s3r star=3/4]

TriStar Pictures presents a film directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, based on the Book “To Reach the Clouds” by Philippe Petit. Running time: 123 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking). Opens Wednesday at Imax theaters and on Friday elsewhere.