Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review: "Allied"

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Runtime: 124 minutes

All's murky in love and war, especially when you and your spouse have both spent time working the international espionage racket. So goes the world of Robert Zemeckis' Allied, which oscillates between Casablanca homage and grim antidote to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Despite a twisty set up, generally strong production values, and solid performances, Allied comes up short when it's time to wrap up its mission.

While much of what we see on screen has a welcome Old Hollywood gloss, Zemeckis' recent love of visual effects starts Allied off on a distractingly modern note. A rather embarrassing opening shot follows a hilariously fake parachute landing into a desert landscape that's only marginally more convincing. Emerging from the fakery is Max Vattan (Brad Pitt), who has arrived in French Morocco to meet up with a French resistance operative to take out a Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. The operative turns out to be Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard, in full Golden Age glamor mode), who helps Max pose as her (fake) husband prior to the assassination. For Marianne, the trick lies in keeping the fakery of their work grounded in some kernel of authenticity.

It's notion that Cotillard pulls off beautifully, making it all the more frustrating that the film around her often fails do follow suit. Allied's sets and costumes are richly designed, but there is often a certain sheen to the imagery which goes beyond romanticism and into fakery. An early scene set in a Casablanca plaza looks the part at first glance, but the longer you soak it in, the more it appears to take place in a vacuum. Tilt the camera the wrong direction by just an inch or two, and the framework of the soundstage would make an unwelcome appearance.

Thankfully, things improve once the action moves back to England. Max and Marianne's fake relationship blossoms into a genuine one, and they settle down and have a baby. Then, right on schedule, the other shoe drops: British intelligence informs Max that Marianne may be a deep cover Nazi spy, and that he'll need to set up a trap to prove her innocence or guilt. 

The answers that eventually come our way, courtesy of screenwriter Steven Knight, largely prove satisfying. Whatever quibbles one might have with the plot's internal logic, Allied boasts enough first rate design and star power to allow for comfortable suspension of disbelief in the moment. But while Knight's story is a fun guessing game, Zemeckis' direction often gets in the way. Allied's opening passages are punishingly slow, with the build up to the assassination taking up far too much time. The Casablanca scenes lay the necessary groundwork with clues and red herrings, but Zemeckis directs on autopilot through much of it. Spycraft lives or dies by the details, but in Allied, those details exist as exposition that need to be trudged through before getting on to the good stuff.

By the time Allied finally introduces the question of Marianne's innocence, you might be ready for the story to just end already. But wait, there's more! The superior second half, when finally given room to take off, is no faster than the opening, but it moves with more confidence and better sustains the intrigue. Act 1 is an overlong obligation, while Act 2 gets to the heart of the matter. Livening things up are short performances from a strong group of supporting performances filled out by the likes of Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan (kudos for including an LGBT character), Matthew Goode, and Simon McBurney.

Without enough genuine character development to support the film's star power, however, the bulk of Allied never consistently catches fire. The twists, thankfully, give the story more heft by providing questions worth considering (as opposed to derailing the plot, which they easily could have). Allied's eventual conclusion is convincingly solemn, in large part thanks to Cotillard's multifaceted performance. The story's lack of focus, coupled with Zemeckis' lack of verve, leaves you with the feeling that you've just witnessed a halfhearted take on what could have been a tense mix of romance and thrills. At least Cotillard provides the fizz in an otherwise flat concoction.

Grade: C

No comments: