Welcome back to Casablanca. It’s been a good 70 years since we were last transported to the glamour and danger of 1941 French Morocco, but apparently director Robert Zemeckis thought it was time to revive the splendor and intrigue of that time and place in “Allied.”
The exotic backdrop is just one parallel in this obvious tribute to the Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman masterpiece. It’s a sumptuous spy drama of love and betrayal that fails to live up to its predecessor but stands well on its own merits as an updated revival of that old Hollywood style.
The film’s greatest asset is actress Marion Cotillard, whose air of mystery and natural allure make her the perfect fit for her role as Marianne Beauséjour. Her emotionally captivating performance helps balance the stiff, almost indifferent portrayal of Max Vatan, by Brad Pitt. Perhaps he was channeling too much of that famous Bogart man’s man stoicism, but the cold facade that fades only toward the film’s end, makes you wonder whether it’s interpretation of the character or lack of heart that drives his performance.
The film opens in the desert sands of French Morocco, where Max Vatan is handed a briefcase with everything a spy requires to assume his new identity — clothes, passports and two submachine guns. Max drives to Casablanca to meet his “wife” Marianne, a French Resistance fighter now working as a spy and his partner in their mission to assassinate the German ambassador.
As Max enters the neon-lit nightclub, the overflow of alcohol and the din of music and laughter veils the tension of an ongoing war. You can almost hear Bogart narrating from the past, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…” as Max spots Marianne from across the room.
As the two intelligence officers grow close they test each others’ loyalty to the mission and to one another. In that place of both nightmare and reverie the two are caught up in their roles as a married couple and allow romance to get the better of their good judgement.
Zemeckis works hard to revive the glamour associated with 1940s Casablanca, in the clothing, the colors and heated relationship drama. Dressed to the nines in every scene, if it weren’t for all the subterfuge and shooting, you would think Pitt and Cotillard were on vacation.
The glamour of Casablanca contrasts with the drabness of war-torn London as fantasy gives way to reality when the couple marries and begins a new life together, with their daughter Anna, in Hampstead. It’s a haunting, hallowed-out city characterized by people leading fatalistic lives while longing for peace.
In this desperate place the movie’s plot begins to take real shape as Marianne’s identity is called into question by a British Special Operations Executive, played by the ever-sinister Simon McBurney.
To discover the truth Max must test the agency’s suspicions while conducting his own clandestine investigation into his wife’s truthfulness.
Unlike other spy flicks that rely heavily on long scenes of dialogue to weave complex webs, the tension in “Allied” is driven by subtlety punctuated by action. Zemeckis deftly combines physical and psychological warfare to communicate the brutal effects of leading a double life. Gun fights and explosions appear for shock value throughout the film, veering into dramatic excess only once as Marianne gives birth in the streets during an air raid.
Those fearing a remake of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” can allay their worries. If you’re able to get past Pitt’s lackluster performance, “Allied” is an entertaining film of espionage and romance that, if not ranked among one of the greats, still delivers on all the suspenseful murky twists of a decent spy thriller. Like “Casablanca” it will keep you guessing, until the truth finally sets everyone free.