Robert Zemeckis has a vastly diverse slate of motion pictures to his credit, but it’s not unfair to associate him with a certain technological fixation on stunt-gizmo cinema. In nearly 40 years of directing, he has implanted cartoons in the real world (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit”), inserted actors into newsreels (“Forrest Gump”), become the rubbery bard of motion capture (“The Polar Express,” “Beowulf,” “A Christmas Carol”), and used death-defying effects to place audiences on a wire strung between the towers of the World Trade Center (“The Walk”). Once in a while, though, Zemeckis makes a film that reminds you what a terrific director he can be when he works the old-fashioned way, staging unadorned human drama without the safety net of cutting-edge visual flimflam.
“Allied,” starring Brad Pitt as a Canadian intelligence officer and Marion Cotillard as a French Resistance fighter who team up for a mission during World War II (and, of course, fall in love), is a high-style romantic espionage thriller that feels like it could have been made in the ’40s (at least, if Ingrid Bergman had been allowed to say the word “f—-“). It’s a movie full of Nazis and chandeliers and prop planes and hidden passion. That may strike some viewers as a slightly stodgy turnoff — a fetishization of the past — but Zemeckis, working from a script by Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things,” the amusing and underrated “Burnt”), is alive to what’s great about old movies: the supple, nearly invisible craft that allows scenes to throb with emotional suspense. “Allied” isn’t based on a true story; it’s a flagrantly movie-ish concoction. But like Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” it’s been made with a so-old-it’s-new classicism that is executed with enough flair to lure audiences in.
How old-fashioned is “Allied”? It’s so old-fashioned that the film’s entire first section is set in Casablanca — and yes, it’s a Casablanca reminiscent of that “Casablanca,” a place of “exotic” intrigue and danger that looks, at times, like it’s flaunting the fact that it’s a movie set. In the opening scene, Max (Pitt) parachutes into the dimpled orange dunes of the Moroccan desert, then wanders into the shadowy white-walled maze of a city. Once there, he has to pretend to be the husband of Marianne (Cotillard), who has been hanging out in nightclubs, getting cozy with the chi-chi collaborationist associates of the Vichy government. The lighting is luxe, and so are the clothes — dresses that drape with goddessy perfection, neckties that look like works of art. When Max first shows up in front of Marianne’s friends, the two cuddle like the most intimate of lovebirds even though they’ve never met: a good set-up. Back at their apartment, she tells him her credo: “I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works.” She also opens the top buttons of her blouse to test him. If he lunges for her, it’s a sign that he lacks the control necessary to execute the mission.
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This is all, of course, the film’s elaborate way to generate some steam heat, and it works. Pitt and Cotillard connect, because there’s a matching toughness to their sensuality. Cotillard acts with a leonine cunning, just the kind of thing that can disarm a seen-it-all conquistador like Pitt. Marianne teases Max, who’s from Quebec, about his lousy Parisian accent (it’s not just teasing, since that could be enough to get them killed), but the audience has a different reaction: Watching Brad Pitt speak French is a little like seeing a dog stand on its hind legs — more impressive than whether he does it well is the fact that he does it at all.
Max and Marianne belong together because they’re movie-star beautiful, and because these spies share a debonair awareness of what’s happening in any room. Their assignment involves wrangling an invitation to a party thrown by the German ambassador, and the scene where they nail down the invite is full of succulent deception. The party is even better. Zemeckis keeps us in the dark about what, exactly, the mission is, and then it’s revealed: a fiery catharsis that seals their love. How could it not? The couple that does cool explosive wartime Bondian stuff together stays together.
Zemeckis, utilizing the inner glow of Don Burgess’ cinematography, stages this episode with a smoothly framed precision — a fusion of action and feeling — that catches you up. Yet it’s all a big pedestal for the film’s second half, which is set in a London suburb, where Max and Marianne, now married with a child, are doing the closest thing they can to living a cozy domestic life together after the wind-down of the Blitz.
It would be a major spoiler to reveal what happens next, so let’s just say this: It’s possible that Marianne is not who Max thought she was. It’s up to Max to ferret out the truth, and he does it with the doggedness, passion, and unruffled trickery of someone whose very existence depends on knowing the answer. At times, the situation is broadly reminiscent of an earlier Pitt film, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” but that jokey Brangelina thriller was top-heavy with meta-gossip subtext; that’s what sold the movie. Pitt’s current tabloid role as a disgruntled divorcing dad may not do much to help the fortunes of “Allied,” but the way that he and Cotillard dance warily around each other creates a far more suggestive vision of marriage as a kind of daily spy zone.
“Allied” is tense and absorbing, yet the film’s climactic act somehow falls short. Zemeckis and company don’t make any obvious missteps, but the movie, in trying to reach out and tug on our heartstrings, goes soft regarding what the Marianne we’re presented with would choose to do. (It could, and should, have gone darker.) You believe that she loves Max, but there’s another side to her devotion that washes away far too easily. The result is that “Allied” inspires most of the old-movie reactions it’s going for except one: It never makes you swoon.