“Allied,” the story of two spies who fall in love while carrying out an assassination during World War II, might have been a terrific thriller about the ways our hearts can override what our brains tell us to be true. Watching it, you wonder what an intimate filmmaker such as Asghar Farhadi might have done with this material, or the disreputable provocation Paul Verhoeven would have concocted.
Instead, “Allied” was directed by Robert Zemeckis, whose best pictures — “Back to the Future,” “Contact,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “The Walk” — all leaned heavily on special effects and technology. People, though, give him trouble. “Allied” has a few big, unnecessary moments of showstopping CGI fireworks, such as a German bombing plane crashing into a residential London neighborhood.
There’s a love scene in which the characters’ carnal passion is symbolized by a sandstorm roaring outside their car, and the film’s opening shot — Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), an agent from Quebec working for the British military, parachutes into the dunes of the Morocco desert — is a neat bit of visual trickery that makes you want to hit the rewind button so you can figure out how they did it.
You’ll probably never want to sit through the rest of the movie again, though. “Allied” sports sumptuous art direction and lovely cinematography (by Don Burgess), and the movie blends a contemporary sensibility with an old-school Hollywood vibe. The story opens in Casablanca and ends on an airport runway strip (!), and the elegant costumes and period details sit alongside frank war violence, f-bombs and sexuality.
So why does the movie just sit there, inert and hollow, when it should be thrumming with life?
“Allied” suggests that Zemeckis was more in love with the idea of making a vintage war romance than with the actual screenplay, by Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises,” “Dirty Little Things”), which hinges on a big twist that the trailers have already given away. Pitt and Marion Cotillard, who plays the French resistance fighter Marianne, don’t embody their characters. Instead, they’re acting out variations of their familiar screen personas: Pitt, the dutiful, conscientous hero who always finds a way; Cotillard, the duplicitous beauty who may be something more than she pretends to be.
You don’t buy into their romance the way you buy into, say, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in the upcoming “La La Land.” All you see are two big movie stars playing make-believe. When the story jumps forward in time, and Max and Marianne have wed and are raising a family in London, the stakes remain low, because you’re not invested in their marriage. You’re just waiting for the second half of the plot to kick in.
After it does, “Allied” becomes a little more involving, but only in the most superficial ways. Is Marianne a double agent working for the Nazis, or does she really love Max the way she proclaims?
The question is definitively settled. But even then, Zemeckis finds a way to stave off the bleak ending that seemed preordained — and would have made this lightweight movie more substantial than a showcase for famous actors performing familiar tricks.