Any self-respecting fan of 1940s cinema, let alone any Turner Classic Movies junkie, will be many steps ahead of the plot swerves and double-crosses of Allied, a super glossy, romantic, defiantly old-fashioned World War II thriller. Brad Pitt, all debonair and Bond-like, plays Canadian Air Force counterintelligence officer Max Vatan, who falls in love with French undercover resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) while they pretend to be married as part of their assignment to kill a high-ranking Nazi in Casablanca in 1942. Just as you’d guess, the impossibly beautiful couple tie the knot, give birth to a ridiculously adorable child, decide to end their spying ways and settle into quiet domesticity. Then bam! Max learns that Marianne is actually a treacherous Nazi spy who has assumed the identity of a woman who died years before. Will Max face execution? Will he kill Marianne himself, as ordered? Will she kill him?
As skillfully written by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises), acted by Pitt and Cotillard, directed by Robert Zemeckis and lushly scored by Alan Silvestri, Allied aims not for breakthrough originality but reassuring, highly satisfying familiarity. It’s a movie that bows deeply to such classic spy thrillers as Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and a dozen other Second World War-time films, including Casablanca. But Allied casts its magic retro spell with such finesse, class and know-how that, for once, you want to congratulate everyone responsible for getting so many more things right than wrong. Shot with vintage movie luster by Zemeckis’ go-to cinematographer Don Burgess (Forrest Gump, Cast Away, etc.) and costumed by Joanna Johnston (her third Zemeckis movie since Back to the Future), the clipped, manicured, decked-out Cotillard and Pitt don’t just look great; they glow as if they’ve been radiated.
Trouble is, despite trying as hard as everyone does, the tone of the movie lurches all over the place. A Casablanca nightclub scene between Cotillard and Pitt crackles with sexual chemistry, but the lovemaking-during-a-sandstorm scene is just this side of unintentionally funny. Allied marks Zemeckis’ second incursion into Hitchcock territory since his Harrison Ford-Michelle Pfeiffer ghost tale What Lies Beneath in 2000, but here he’s on stronger ground with the sturdier script. He’s also armed himself with Cotillard, whose acting chops and smoky allure can stand comparison with old-school legends like Casablanca’s own Ingrid Bergman. But there’s also very good backup from Lizzy Caplan as Pitt’s sister, a lesbian who deeply mistrusts her sister-in-law, as well as from scene-stealers Simon McBurney and Jared Harris as Brit intelligence officers.
As a tribute to old-time Hollywood genre moviess, Allied is the goods–stylish, suspenseful, utterly artificial. Amid the post-election shock and gloom, though, the movie is like the equivalent of a big old bucket of popcorn. Some of the kernels are undercooked, some are scorched and some are schmaltzy with butter. But hey, at least it’s gourmet popcorn.