Opening your film with a title card that says “Casablanca, 1942” is a power move. Surely the last thing you’d want is for your audience to be holding you to the standard of one of the greatest WWII movies ever made, right? But maybe this was Robert Zemeckis’ way of deliberately painting himself into a corner, of forcing himself to put up or shut up. Whatever the case, it’s paid off. Allied is thrilling, smart, populist filmmaking that fully utilizes all the natural sex appeal of its setting (and stars), so much so that the homage doesn’t feel unearned. Sure, Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard screwing in a car during a Casablanca sand storm on the eve of a plot to murder some Nazis is a pure Hollywood, but that’s the best kind of Hollywood. If that doesn’t appeal to you, at least a little, you’re probably a Communist, or worse.
I hadn’t watched the Allied trailers or read much about it, so when I sat down, I’d actually forgotten that it was a Robert Zemeckis movie (written by prolific screenwriter and Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight). In retrospect, I should’ve guessed from the slight sheen on Brad Pitt’s CG-enhanced face. But Allied‘s technical trickery is like good plastic surgery, in that you only notice it if you know to look, a massive step forward for the guy who once gave us Tom Hanks’ creepy corpse eyes in the all-time uncanny valley classic, Polar Express. That feels like a lifetime ago now, and technique takes a backseat to storytelling in Allied, as it should. This is Zemeckis’ best movie in… damn, probably 20 years.
I may regret saying that, because if there’s one thing Zemeckis has been good at throughout his career, it’s making movies that capitalize on the mood of the zeitgeist, even if their appeal as worthwhile art fades with each passing year. In some cases, anyway. The Back to the Future movies will always be classics, even if I still wonder what drugs the Academy was on when they awarded Forrest Gump Best Picture. Forrest was fun, Castaway was thrilling, but Allied is both, plus it’s romantic, and feels like it’s actually about something. And, unlike anything Zemeckis has made for at least 16 years, it feels especially suited to this particular cultural moment.
Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, a Canadian intelligence officer assigned to pose as husband to Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), a fighter in zee Fronsh Reeseestonce working undercover as a Vichy bureaucrat in Nazi-occupied Morocco. I don’t speak French so unfortunately I can’t make fun of Arizona’s [er, Missouri’s] only cultural export posing as a native-born Parisian. Maybe his French is okay? Probably not, but I don’t feel qualified to comment. Anyway, the two carry out an action together after getting some action together (what luck the two super-hot Nazi fighters getting paired like that), and damn, was Zemeckis always this good an action director? If not he stole the best parts of Inglourious Basterds, from the tension-filled interrogations to the blood-spurting skulls. God, I could watch Nazis get capped in the brain for a week.
There are things that seem a little off (without spoiling too much) that only come into focus later. Much like when the credits rolled and I saw Robert Zemeckis’ name and thought “I knew I detected some motion-capture in there!”
Probably that’s part of what has made Zemeckis one of America’s favorite pop directors. He uses the kind of foreshadowing that makes you feel smart. It’s one of many crowd-pleasing moves in Allied, from sexy people doing sex with each other to almost as many headshots as The Departed to debaucherous, drug-fueled Blitz parties. Did people really do lesbian stuff and cocaine while the buzz bombs were falling? I don’t know if that’s historically accurate but it feels emotionally true. Anything goes when you might die. And apocalyptic sex parties might be even more my bag than Nazis eating lead.
But hey, about that cultural moment. I tried really hard not to tie this review back to world events like surely everything you’ve read in the past week, but there is something undeniably relevant about this setting. With everyone bitching at each other and Balkanizing into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded pervs, kooks, and fetishists, it is nice to be transported back to a time when social trust was truly a matter of life and death. Anyone can get you killed when you’re a resistance fighter. How much do you dislike that obnoxious co-worker, really? And the beauty of Allied is that it’s not just a paean to cohesion and ideological purity, it’s also about strange bedfellows, and the idea that shared humanity runs deeper than politics.
Does it resolve itself a little too easily? Is it overly life-affirming? Does it avoid exploring some of the tougher questions? Sure. I mean, it’s a Robert Zemeckis movie. Chase scenes outweigh introspective moments by a large margin, as you would expect. But it’s entertaining as hell, it’s about something, and it doesn’t cheat. That makes it, in my book, one of his best.