Robert Zemeckis used to be a reliable brand name.
The filmmaker gained fame through pop culture touchstones such as “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Forrest Gump,” yet he’s since become responsible for competent-yet-forgettable movies that make little dent with audiences or critics.
His new World War II thriller “Allied” joins this recent canon of “The Walk,” “Flight” and “A Christmas Carol” — all boasting big-time actors and production values. They’re good enough to pass the time but generic enough to be directed by anybody.
We meet Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) as he’s parachuting into the dunes of French Morocco in 1942. The Canadian intelligence officer’s mission is to rendezvous with French Resistance agent Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard) — whom he’s never met — and pretend to be her visiting Parisian husband.
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Then he spies the saucer-eyed brunette across a crowded room. It’s clear this won’t be just another assignment.
Since the Nazis and puppet Vichy government in Casablanca eye any outsider with suspicion, Max and Marianne must keep up the guise of a married couple until they can pull off a risky assassination. But their profession forbids them from romancing each other.
On the eve of their operation, Marianne attempts to seduce Max for real in a blinding sandstorm.
“If we’re dead tomorrow, no one would know,” she rationalizes.
As the war escalates, so does their relationship, with loyalty and identity constantly in question.
It’s hard not to think about another of Pitt’s behind-enemy-lines World War II flicks, “Inglourious Basterds.” There’s even a supporting bit by August Diehl (SS officer Hellstrom in “Basterds”), who again portrays a smarmy Nazi trying to root out an impostor. Yet “Allied” comes across like another “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” albeit a more serious (and stiffer) spin on that action-comedy about wedded assassins.
The material here is rarely played for laughs; instead it’s full of quiet contemplation and protracted doubt.
It’s not all talk, though. Zemeckis stages massive aerial battles, usually in the background as his leads react to their own personal conflicts in the foreground. His street-level action pieces, such as a raid on a French jail, provide a stronger sense of the harrowing chaos of combat. Doubly effective are the Hitchcock-style thrills: the countdown of a noisy clock that prefaces a life-altering phone call; the inability of a plane engine to start as a last means for escape.
Zemeckis and writer Steven Knight (“Locke,” “Eastern Promises”) keep this somewhat downer tale engaging by letting the stars do the heavy lifting. Pitt and Oscar winner Cotillard (best known for her deceptive turn in “The Dark Knight Rises”) don’t rely on chemistry so much as intimacy. They play their characters as more kindred spirits than soul mates.
This is illustrated during their nightly rooftop conversations while maintaining their cover in Casablanca.
“I keep the emotion real,” she says of learning to like the people they’re targeting. “That’s why it works.”
“Allied” works to a similar degree. Zemeckis doesn’t always get us to care about what’s happening in the movie, but he does make us feel the sincere connection between these two weary warriors.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 2:00.