ALLIED  * * *

Starring Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Lizzy Caplan, Simon McBurney and Jared Harris. Screenplay by Steven Knight. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.

A fascinating hybrid of bleeding-edge technology and old-fashioned flair, Robert Zemeckis’ Allied drags a defiantly retro WWII drama into the 21st century with shimmering digital embellishments that only occasionally distract. A few fuck-words aside, Steven Knight’s screenplay wouldn’t feel out of place in 1943. But instead of the back-projection, process photography and matte paintings common to films of that era, Zemeckis indulges in the artifice of ones and zeros, creating impossible trick-shots and virtual landscapes that rival his computer-animated adventures. Allied looks just as fakey as a forties movie, but fakey in a different, more modern way. There’s a reason it contains so many references to Casablanca — the techno-pioneer is deliberately making a case for his kind of digital filmmaking as part of the classic Hollywood tradition. Sometimes he even convinced me.

Brad Pitt stars as the magnificently named Max Vatan, Wing Commander in the Royal Canadian Air Force on a top-secret mission in Morocco. He’s assigned to pose as the husband of French Resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour, played by the impossibly gorgeous Marion Cotillard with Sphinx-like inscrutability. The first act of Allied finds these two weary warriors skeptically sniffing around each other, trained not to trust but hot and bothered all the same. Their flirtation culminates in a front-seat tryst quite amusingly set during a sandstorm, Zemeckis’ “camera” spinning circles around them inside the cramped car –where a physical camera could never fit– as the winds rage outside. It’s a slick bit of how-did-he-do-that showmanship, though admittedly not very sexy.

Like most Zemeckis pictures, Allied is something of a cold fish – a cleverly engineered contraption unconcerned with the characters’ inner lives. The story picks up steam a couple years later when Marianne is accused of being a German spy, her now-actual-husband Max given only a weekend to prove his wife’s innocence before he’ll be forced to execute her himself. Knight’s script boasts a nifty ticking-clock structure with some satisfying reversals, and it’s refreshing to see a WWII movie with such a narrow focus. Allied isn’t trying to make some sort of grandiose statement about war or reach for any contemporary parallels, it’s just a claustrophobic thriller with a historical backdrop.

This is the kind of tense, talky story that once upon a time would have been shot quickly on Hollywood soundstages. Zemeckis uses digital wizardry to visually goose along the proceedings with results both eye-popping and absurd. It’s a bit much when Cotillard gives birth in the middle of a London street while everything around is blown to bits during the Blitz, but I quite admired a complex outdoor party sequence illuminated by an air raid miles off in the distance. (Be forewarned the shindig’s random fixation on coke-sniffing and lesbian makeout sessions call to mind those leering scenes in Flight that made Zemeckis come off like a creepy uncle.)

Cotillard is perfectly elegant and opaque, but by design the story can’t give her too much to play. This isn’t one of Pitt’s better performances, all growly and aloof in ways that counteract his charisma. He’s also harmed by Zemeckis’ bizarre affinity for digitally airbrushing actors, giving all his close-ups a blurry, smeared effect like that filter your friends use to try and look younger on Instagram. Last I checked Brad Pitt was still a good-looking guy, and even if he’s a few years too old for the role that’s no reason to have the F/X crew make him Benjamin Button again.

Leaving aside a sentimental epilogue that feels borrowed from a much softer, sappier picture, Allied hums along quite nicely thanks to the kind of cleanly efficient, old-school storytelling that’s almost extinct at the multiplex these days. For all Zemeckis’ digital ornamentation, he’s still got a classicist’s knack for how to pace out a suspense sequence. A late-movie plane crash is indeed spectacular (though notably only the third-most effective plane crash this director has filmed) yet the film works even better in simpler, more low-tech moments, like during a complicated break-in when you’ve got Pitt listening for footsteps upstairs.

Allied’s innovations point to the future of cinema, but its pleasures are in the fundamentals.

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