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When Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) steps out onto a wire stretched across New York City’s Twin Towers, “The Walk” soars. It’s in getting there that the movie stumbles.

But as a stunt film, “The Walk” works. Director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”) stages his centerpiece sequence with audacious visual splendor, hovering above his wire walker and swooping up from below him while he dances between the two Towers, themselves a marvel to once again behold.

It’s a majestic sight, and Zemeckis goes for broke, rendering the sequence in glorious 3-D that is actually worth the upgrade and the occasional discomfort caused by those bulky glasses. (Zemeckis, whose animated 2007 feature “Beowulf” was also a 3-D eye-popper, is on the very short list of directors who have used the medium effectively in the last 10 years.) “The Walk” is truly a cinematic experience; it’s not going to work as well on your iPhone as it does on the big screen, in this case the bigger the better.

“The Walk” is a fitting title for a movie that is all about the walk. “Man on Wire,” the 2008 documentary that told the same story (and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary), did a better job of focusing on the man, and Petit is such a fantastic nut that no one can tell his story better than he can himself. (Petit, upon “Man on Wire’s” Academy Award win, memorably balanced the Oscar statue on his chin.)

“The Walk” opens with Gordon-Levitt’s Petit talking directly to the audience while the Twin Towers shimmer in the background, and as the camera pulls back, it is revealed he is standing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. He stays atop this perch the entire film, which is meant to inspire whimsy, but instead acts as a rather large green screen distraction.

Gordon-Levitt’s likeability wins out, however, even when his French accent grates. (He’s like Pepé Le Pew in a bad wig.) We see him performing street art in France and amassing the co-conspirators that will eventually help him perform his World Trade Center “coup,” though his crew members — including love interest Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) — barely register. Only Ben Kingsley as his mentor, Papa Rudy, leaves an impression, and his role is diminished as the story unfolds.

“The Walk” sharpens as the film shifts into heist mode, and the set-up for the World Trade Center stunt resembles something of a “Mission: Impossible” movie. As it comes together, the film becomes just as much a tribute to those massive Towers as it is to Petit.

Yet the script, by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, doesn’t do a sufficient job of establishing Petit’s motives, the risks involved with walking on a wire between two buildings a quarter mile above the ground (aside from the obvious) or Petit’s psyche as the stunt nears.

The movie is in a hurry to get to the walk, and what a walk it is. But the man on the wire never comes into focus.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

‘The Walk’

GRADE: B-

Rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking

Running time: 123 minutes

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