Robert Zemeckis is an established giant in the industry, despite having made fewer films than you probably think, and his status comes off the back of wild adventures. He’s recently moved toward things like Flight and The Walk, which at best aren’t great, and at worst are rather weird.
He seems to be moving both too close and too far away from the world of film, and/or he has begun to believe himself better than he is. Not to take anything away from his work and success, but the Back to the Future franchise requires a solid sense of filmcraft, but not a genius. Meanwhile, Forrest Gump, Contact, and Cast Away are in the realm of the Spice Girls of movies, they caused a hell of a stir at the time, but few admit to having ever liked them now.
This is all only worth mentioning because it seems to be at the heart of what goes wrong with Allied, a film that should be one of the year’s best, but is instead somewhat better than average.
Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is a British spy dropped in North Africa to assassinate a high-ranking Nazi officer during World War II, and Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard) is the French resistance fighter who has built the cover for him to step into on his way. The film begins with the complex stage-setting necessary for the two to meet, and for them to paint their charade around the town in order to get an invitation to the event that will give them their prize. It’s reminiscent of Hitchcock, and several spy films of his era specifically, especially when it comes to the dance Max and Marianne go through while deciding if they trust each other.
It isn’t giving anything away (because it’s the meat of the film’s trailer) to say that the two end up married, and just when you thought war had found all the havoc it could wreak on a life, it turns out Marianne may be working for the Nazis.
The entry to the film is something from a far better creature, but once the race is over and the film needs to move to the marriage, the birth of a child, and the eventual suspicion, it’s as though it loses interest in itself. There is no subtlety to any deception, and nothing that can manage to suggest anything other than the obvious conclusion. Emotions are offered up through the most simplistic devices, and though Pitt and Cotillard have brilliant chemistry in the beginning, once they are actually married the film moves to puppy-kicking tactics, which gives them no room to deliver anything at all. Anyone who may or may not be a “secret” Nazi is practically wearing a sign, and every suspicious action anyone makes is delivered like a kid telling you someone else did it while still holding the cookie.
Ultimately, the film ends up something a shell game, selling a premise that might make a powerful story, but sprinting past that idea when it finally gets to it. Wondering whether a woman could actually have been a spy all along, after marrying a man and having his child, dedicating years to the con, is a story you’d love to lose yourself in, but Allied is a film that isn’t exactly after that story, or any story. It has an ending it wants to give you, and it’s a good one, but it hasn’t delivered the heart along the way that builds enough into that ending.
Still, it’s only disappointing, as opposed to an effort that actually falls apart. Pitt and Cotillard are as good as they can be, and the obvious difference in what that can do when they have something to work with during the first half is almost jarring in itself. While they finesse their way through Nazis and the fear of exposure, it’s like watching an instant classic. If this could have continued the actual tension and intrigue of the 45 minutes, you’d never stop watching it.