Robert Zemeckis's would-be epic wartime romance Allied plays like two different movies stitched together in the middle, with the first one being not very good and the second one being significantly better. That's unfortunate because, on the surface at least, Allied has much going for it. However, all of its well-manicured star power and gorgeous production design is ultimately impotent against the film's relentless artificiality and the lack of heat generated between stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard.
The first half of the film, which is set entirely in Casablanca in 1941, is the weakest, which proves problematic since it is set-up for the much better second half. We are introduced to Pitt's Max Vatan, a French-Canadian member of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the outfit responsible for overseeing behind-enemy-lines operations. In the first of the film's many, many synthetic-looking sequences, Vatan parachutes onto a sand dune, where he is promptly picked up in the desert and whisked into Casablanca, where he is to meet with another operative, Cotillard's French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour, who has been busy establishing them as a married couple in order to infiltrate the Nazi presence there. Max and Marianne have to pretend to be an amorous married couple so that they may attend a lavish Nazi banquet and assassinate the German ambassador. The assassination itself is just a macguffin, relatively unimportant plot-wise except that it justifies Max and Marianne's having to pretend to be lovers, which naturally leads to them actually becoming lovers. The problem is that there isn't much chemistry between Pitt and Cotillard, especially because Pitt plays Max as something close to a statue. For an actor with his star wattage and history of energetic, eccentric performances, it is surprising to see him in such a consistently somnambulistic state, as if he mistook gravity for dullness. Cotillard brings much needed energy to their scenes together, but it isn't enough to keep the first hour of the film from being an unconvincing slog.
The second half picks up considerably, as Max and Marianne survive what could have very well been a suicide mission, return to London, and get married and have a child. Yet, at the height of their picture-perfect domestic bliss, interrupted only by the regular dropping of German bombs on the city, the British military drops another kind of bomb. Max is summoned to a dark room where an officious officer informs him that they suspect Marianne is not a French resistance fighter, but rather a deeply embedded German spy. Max refuses to believe it, but he has no choice but to go along with a ruse in which he is to plant false information in their house and see if it gets passed along to the Germans, thus proving Marianne's betrayal. If that is the case, then Max is instructed to kill her by his own hand, a predicament that would be infinitely more gut-wrenching if the leads had more chemistry. Nevertheless, Zemeckis starts to hit his stride once the film's true plot emerges, as Max races desperately to prove that Marianne is who she says she is. It's a race against time because it will take a few days for the false information to show up in German communication, and in the meantime he must put up the new faade of being the loving husband who isn't worried that his wife is an operative of the Third Reich.
The screenplay by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Pawn Sacrifice) is quite classical in its two-part construction, and there are several sequences in the second half the ratchet up the tension in ways that are both clever and intense. Quite a bit of it strains credulity, but then again, you don't usually go to a film in which Brad Pitt regularly speaks French for its verisimilitude. There are time when you can feel Zemeckis reaching and straining for grandiosity, such as the scene in which Max and Marianne's child is born in the midst of a massive bombing raid, her hospital bed rolled outside into the grass while flames burn around them and antiaircraft fire lights up the sky. There is also a crackerjack sequence in which a party at their house is interrupted by an air raid that sends a burning German plane hurtling right toward their front window.
Yet, the overall impact of Allied is negligible, due in no small part to Zemeckis's decision to shoot the entire film on soundstages with digital backgrounds that are sometimes seamless with the sets, but at other times stand out in ways that are very nearly cartoonish (none of it looks as bad as those awful Statue of Liberty shots in his last film, The Walk, but some of it comes close). Thrillers of this sort tend to feed on an underlying sense of reality, often achieved via the use of actual locations, but Allied all too often looks and feels fabricated, with its fake digital environs squeezing the life out of its white-knuckle predicament. At least Brad Pitt comes alive in the film's second half, shaking off the cobwebs and conveying a real sense of urgency and desperation, but it ultimately isn't enough to save a film that strives to evoke the classics of the wartime era, but ends up feeling like a digitized copy.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (2)
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