Robert Zemeckis Slips Up With Awkward "Allied"

In 2012, “Back To The Future” mastermind Robert Zemeckis returned from motion capture purgatory (“The Polar Express,” “Beowulf,” and “A Christmas Carol”) to the land of the living with “Flight,” and then, three years later, “The Walk.” The worthy one-two punch reminded of Zemeckis’ propensity for directing flesh and blood performers (Denzel Washington’s performance in “Flight” remains one of the decade’s most undervalued) and suggested a second wind that would allow the filmmaker to combine his passion for tech with live-action storytelling.

World War II romantic thriller “Allied” is outwardly cut from the same cloth; green screen work and grand special effects abound in an otherwise small-scale character piece. Commencing in 1942, the fictional narrative sees a Canadian intelligence officer named Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and a La Résistance fighter named Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) team up in French Morocco to assassinate a German ambassador. While feigning coupledom, they end up a real couple, leading to marriage and the beginnings of a family. Their domestic bliss seems too good to be true – and it might be. Max’s superiors begin to suspect that Marianne is a Nazi spy.

What a logline! An allied soldier torturously grapples with the idea that he’s sleeping with the enemy, that at any moment he might be ordered to execute his true love. The parts are in place for an utterly ripping thriller, a heart-pounding spy mystery to rank with the best of the genre. Who could ask for more?

Anyone with a pulse, it turns out. The performances Zemeckis gets from his leads are an insult to wood, and Steven Knight’s script is unnaturally matter-of-fact, leaving moviegoers with two mostly flat hours with just a smattering of thrills.

It’s immediately clear that neither Pitt nor Cotillard are readymade for their admittedly underwritten characters. And for over an hour, their characters are all the movie has. As romance blooms, at first in Casablanca and then in London, Zemeckis and Knight maintain laser-like focus on their leads, bombarding us with dime novel dialogue and absurd sex scenes, the silliest coming in the back of a car during a raging sandstorm. Like so much of the rest of the film, it’s unclear if director and writer are trying to be humorous or completely earnest.

If they were going for pulpy erotica, they get one or two of the accouterments right (breathless proclamations of love) but otherwise miss by miles. The widely rumored offscreen affair between Pitt and Cotillard does not manifest itself on screen at all, undoubtedly buttoned down by inert exchanges like “We are alive, Max! We are both alive!” to which Max responds, “Come with me to London. Come with me to London and be my wife.” It certainly doesn’t help that Pitt already has two rich, evocative World War II movies under his belt (Quentin Tarantino’s resplendent “Inglourious Basterds” and David Ayer’s “Fury”), both troubling points of comparison for the frequently listless “Allied.”

There’s a characteristically fun supporting performance from Jared Harris as Max’s commanding officer, but his big scene – the revelation that Marianne might be a spy – ends up a microcosm of the movie’s failings. The scene is directed dispassionately, performed poorly by Pitt, and comes without any music at all, screaming out for composer Alan Silvestri to no avail. It’s the big scene in the movie and it’s dead on arrival.

The gaudy special effects are similarly curious, underlining just how conceptually potholed the picture is. Viewers are asked to alternate interest between the fate of one couple and the fate of the world – a clash brought to a head in a couple of impressive air raid sequences – but the movie never makes much of a case for either one. Brad Pitt, iconic American actor, is about as Canadian as Thai food, and cannot carry colorless dialogue on charisma alone. And Cotillard appears even more flummoxed by her character’s arc than viewers will be by the time credits roll.

What the film ultimately asks of its audience in regards to Marianne’s possible double life is so bizarre as to nearly remedy what came before, retroactively making the project into an exercise in the limits of audience empathy. But it’s mostly just strange and not the intense game of cat and mouse promised by the ad campaign – or the first ninety minutes of the film.

“Allied” is not a fiasco, but considering its pedigree it might as well be. Like in his motion capture days, Zemeckis seems more concerned with the process than the outcome, resulting in a film that might have been interesting to make but isn’t very interesting to watch. Sandstorm sex scene and all.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: November 23, 2016
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, Simon McBurney, Matthew Goode
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use)