On paper, Allied has it all: full-bore, top-shelf star power in the pleasing forms of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard; a director with both a mastery of modern visual effects technology and a natural storyteller’s ability; and a setting and narrative that promises both epic, sweeping action and heartbreaking, emotional character dynamics. So what could go wrong?
Quite a bit, as it turns out. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Flight), Allied is meant to be a throwback to an old-school romantic Hollywood spectacle, with screen-filling stars leaving their hearts on the floor as they swoop and soar through any number of incredibly detailed period locales on a grand adventure that usually involves one of the great wars. But Allied, despite all the elements it has in place, is curiously inert and bloodless, as if a snazzy new copy machine was supposed to print out a presentation in eye-popping colors and ended up spitting it out in plain old black and white. You can read it but it’s dull to look at.
At least the movie starts with an interesting twist on the standard meet-cute. We follow Pitt’s Max Vatan literally feet first as the Canadian intelligence officer parachutes into French Morocco and meets up with French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard), with the two posing as husband and wife on a secret mission to assassinate the German ambassador. Pitt’s reserved Vatan is no match for the charms of Cotillard’s Marianne, who says she is good at undercover work because she lets herself feel the emotions she’s supposed to be faking. In this case, it works as well as possible: Vatan falls in love with his partner and they consummate the relationship in a car as a dust storm swirls around them, no doubt meant to symbolize the heated passions at play here.
That’s just one sequence where Zemeckis lets the connection between the action and the characters’ emotions go way over the top. The other is a scene in which Marianne gives birth to her and Max’s child in the bombed-out ruins of a hospital during a German nighttime raid on London. That’s where the couple are making a home when we catch up with them a year later.
Vatan is still going out on missions while Marianne has abandoned all vestiges of her career to devote herself full-time to domestic bliss. That is until Vatan’s superior (a no-nonsense but empathetic Jared Harris) and an unnamed yet truly icy intelligence officer (Simon McBurney) haul Vatan into a bunker to inform him that Marianne may in fact be a spy for the Nazis, and that it will be up to Vatan to kill her if her loyalty to the Allies cannot be confirmed.
It’s up to Vatan at that point to undertake his own investigation and learn the truth about his wife before he is forced to either betray his superiors or gun her down. All the makings of a classic wartime thriller, right? Except that the build-up to Vatan’s dilemma is agonizingly slow as we work our way through all the throat-clearing material about how Vatan and Marianne got together. What should be revealed at the end of the first act doesn’t fully come to light until halfway through Steven Knight’s screenplay, leaving the movie feeling unbalanced and Vatan’s mission to seek out the truth about his wife rushed and disjointed (it’s never quite clear why he goes out on one clandestine night flight to France, and how he avoids getting shot down on the way, for example).
What also hurts the proceedings is that both Pitt and Cotillard are playing types, not full-bodied characters, although Cotillard fares a little better in that department. Still, neither actor seems comfortable in their roles: Pitt is much better when he can add some quirks or Southern deep-fry to his roles (like the doomed tank commander in Fury), while Cotillard, despite her wonderful French accent and timeless looks, tends to fare better in more contemporary settings.
Their characters goes through the paces but you never get the sense that you’re watching real people in extraordinarily difficult circumstances until perhaps the movie’s final scenes, which are played for all the emotional wallop that Zemeckis can muster at that point.
The director largely excels on the technical side, overseeing a production design and visual effects that bring us the occasionally gripping sequence, like a bombing raid that occurs right over the Vatans’ home. For all its attention to detail, however, the movie never pops off the screen with either eye-filling locations or compositions, bringing us back to the copy machine analogy earlier.
It’s a shame, because Zemeckis knows how to do both spectacle and truly emotional human melodrama (his Contact is underrated in that sense), but with this and last year’s stumble, The Walk, he appears to be paying more attention to the tools he’s using visually and not as much overall to the narrative structure or the film’s cohesion.
The title of Allied is ironic, in a way, because the movie’s lack of real heat and its missing sense of sweeping adventure indicates a project at war with itself, let alone the Germans. Just because you can bring together those elements we mentioned earlier — huge star power, a vastly experienced director and what should be an unbeatable story in a can’t-miss setting — it doesn’t mean that they’ll combine in a winning way.
Allied is out in theaters Wednesday (Nov. 23).