1942. Occupied Casablanca. Champagne corks pop as a big band swings. A nightclub whirs with cigarette girls, refugees, burnouts, Nazi officers, Resistance fighters, and Vichy troops. A pair of well-dressed spies walks in. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…
Well, you know the rest. Sort of. For its first half, Allied takes an unthinkable gamble: it remakes Casablanca. That’s a 50-year-old punchline, and it shouldn’t work nearly this well. But from the moment Brad Pitt parachutes into the Moroccan desert to rendezvous with Marion Cotillard, already deep undercover, the movie moves like gangbusters. Strutting behind enemy lines, Allied is at its most confident when repurposing Hollywood’s sacred history.
Rewritten on the fly from an unproduced play by a pair of nobodies, Casablanca was movie history’s happiest accident—the result of master craftsmen at the height of their game. Allied, on the other hand, is a Robert Zemeckis joint, the kind of place where happy accidents are verboten. His movies are digital wonderlands, planned within an inch of their lives. But here, he’s abandoned his decades-long dual fixations with digital wizardry and the stridently middlebrow that’s resulted in a few successes (The Walk, Contact), some goopy crowd pleasers (Cast Away, Forrest Gump), and a lot of swill (The Polar Express, Beowulf, Death Becomes Her).
That’s not to say that Zemeckis isn’t a master filmmaker—he’s the guy behind Back to the Future and I Wanna Hold Your Hand—but after years of tinkering, he’s made something that feels alive in only the way big movies can. (Even more surprising is that a movie as expansive as Allied comes from a script by Steven Knight, a guy whose big break, Locke, was set entirely in a car seat.)
Always an indulgent nostalgist, Zemeckis finally dispenses with his backward-looking politics and conjures the sophisticated hokum of Hollywood at its best. He infuses this frothy cocktail with Dirty Dozen-style, men-on-a-mission fireworks; once Allied moves to the European Theater, it gurgles with splashes of Hitchcock’s Notorious.
It’s here that Cotillard gleams most. While Pitt, who’s grown craggier with age, makes for a fine Bogart, Cotillard is the closest thing we have to Ingrid Bergman at her most incandescently smoldering. Their chemistry is as explosive as the bombing raids that ignite nighttime London. And while the impulse is to resist the tabloid smog, it infuses the movie with the grimy glitz of a mid-century Burton-Taylor affair and distracts from the material’s iffy take on gender dynamics.
But that’s a minor reach, and for a movie that goes out of its way to make its Graham Greene allusions explicit, probably par for the course. In any case, it’s more Ministry of Fear than The Heart of the Matter. Allied‘s real devotion is to mythmaking—the kind of entertainment the world will always welcome, no matter how much time goes by.
Allied. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Steven Knight. Starring Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, and Jared Harris. Opens Kansas City November 23, 2016.