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By T.T. Stern-Enzi


Photo: Brad Pitt as Max Vatan and Marion Cotillard as Marianne Beauséjour in ‘Allied’ Rating: R; Grade: D+

Over the years, Robert Zemeckis (“Flight”) has proven to be a special effects wizard, capable of employing all-manner of visual trickery to dazzle and amaze audiences into believing that a souped-up DeLorean just might make the perfect time travel vehicle or that Jessica Rabbit wasn’t bad (she was just drawn that way, right?). Along the way, he wound up merging his talents with the dramatic chops of Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” which earned the pair Academy Awards (Zemeckis for direction, Hanks for acting) and stronger consideration of Zameckis as a filmmaker with more than gimmicks up his sleeve.

But he always tends to fall back on the creation of seamless illusions, almost as if Zemeckis doesn’t quite trust the idea that any of his narratives could survive on their own. Despite working with top-flight performers—Jodie Foster in “Contact,” Hanks again in “Cast Away,” Denzel Washington in “Flight,” and the emerging Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “The Walk”—he never seems comfortable suppressing the urge to put on a show, to surround his actors with three-rings of diversionary tactics that undermine the majesty of simple storytelling.

And yet, with his latest outing, “Allied,” Zemeckis finally appears ready to surrender to the innate charms of a character-driven tale with nothing more than old-fashioned romance as the primary special effect on display. With celebrated screenwriter Steven Knight as his co-pilot, Zameckis sets out to capture the intrigue and passion of the film’s World War II milieu, following the exploits of Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), a dashing intelligence officer, who has a chance encounter with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard) behind enemy lines in Northern Africa.

Vatan and Beauséjour, thrust together as deep-cover operatives posing as husband and wife, gradually fall in love as the high-stakes of their assignment begin to mount. We see the growing admiration Vatan has for his lover, as she effortlessly plays her role to perfection. He is more of a blunt instrument in the field, a ruthlessly efficient machine (less suave than the early James Bond iterations that came to define that character), while Beauséjour cajoles and captivates with intelligence before dropping the hammer.

With their task in Casablanca completed, Vatan returns to London and pushes for Beauséjour to join him. Bucking the notion that spies can’t settle down together, the two marry and start a family, but a challenge arises when Beauséjour is accused of being a double agent, forcing Vatan into the dangerous position of having to investigate his lover, and potentially execute her.

As that synopsis highlights, there is precious little room for Zemeckis to dig into his toolbox to whip up a spellbinding sequence to create any kind of impossible feeling or sensation. Instead, we get well-executed action scenes that jack up the tension during the various missions. One stunning moment in the desert finds Vatan and Beauséjour stranded in a car in the middle of a sandstorm, where they finally make love for the first time. Reminiscent of “The English Patient” and its riveting tryst between the star-crossed lovers—Count Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and the married Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas)—I found myself anticipating the same kind of narrative swell that would propel “Allied” into rarified air.

Unfortunately, “Allied” tumbled during its second half, in part because it never found a way to frame the romantic stakes. “The English Patient” had, as its basis, a compelling sacrifice offered by Almásy—he hands his maps of North Africa over to the Germans in an attempt to save Katharine’s life after she is stranded in the desert—and a fitting parallel tale of a nurse (Juliette Binoche) caught up in a whirlwind romance of her own with a bomb-specialist (Naveen Andrews), while tending to a dying patient. It is in the weaving together of these disparate strands that “The English Patient” reveals its lush secrets.

“Allied,” on the other hand, has no narrative backup, no intriguing plot lines for comparison’s sake. It even fails to take advantage of a performer like Marion Cotillard, who could have been utilized to breathe life into the complex figure of Beauséjour, a would-be queen of espionage, who instead barely rises to the level of a pawn in her own life’s story. Zemeckis would have been wise to remember that “just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character.” That key narrative effect takes care and attention.