Skip to main content

Show me the chickens, Max.

Allied
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Just what is it that attracts Robert Zemeckis to a movie? Now that his prospects for creating entirely unasked for virtual landscapes have decisively dimmed, that is? The chance to work with accomplished, Oscar-winning or nominated actors on distinguished screenplays delving into intricate and rewarding subject matter? Or the opportunity to ransack the material, seeking some kernel or glimmer of a reason to justify further elaborate experimentation with some new technical trickery he has set his sights on this time? Yes, it’s the latter. Allied is a Notorious-esque WWII tale of romantically-entangled spies and the suspicions that arise, not so much of fidelity as loyalty to the winning side. Or, it’s the chance to give Brad a full virtual chemical peel, and roll those decades right off him, the odd unflatteringly turkey neck aside.


This CGI facial wash becomes the raison d’être of Allied (daring you not to find its content as unequivocally dull as its title), so if you’re keen to watch Brad in a not-quite uncanny valley state, but undeniably so very rather off, this will be right up your street. Otherwise, you will most likely find yourself left wanting. Zemeckis is working with less hyperbolic budgets these days, but they still afford him the chance to dabble in his preferred composite worlds, to as varying degrees of effectiveness as ever (honestly, his best work with effects remains his ‘80s output, when he wasn’t trying so hard).


Marvel at the manner in which Brad apparently lands his fighter plane and climbs out of it all in one shot (it’s that kind of thing you’ll probably find was the clincher in Zemeckis deciding to direct the picture)! Similar less-than-profound motivations likely went into the his decision to make The Walk (the plot is redundant thanks to the superior documentary, but just check out those vertiginous ambulatory exploits) and Flight (another plane crash, following Cast Away – oh, goodie!) And so, looking back on his career, similarly perfunctory, unadorned logic dictates his choices, post-Back to the Future; Who Framed Roger Rabbit (combine animation and live action), Death Becomes Her (unleash T2-standard CGI on a black comedy), Forrest Gump (Zelig-style interpolating of the lead character with news reel footage), Contact (more of the same, and the chance to do a 2001 trip sequence) and the challenge of making a whole movie while taking a break for Tom Hanks to get skinny (Cast Away and What Lies Beneath). Which brings us to his performance capture, decade-long pit.


So, if you’re trying to work out what Allied is about, scratching your head but to no avail, that’s what it’s about. You might have spent much of your viewing time hoping to be seduced and captivated by the romance between Brad’s Canadian Intelligence Wing Commander Max Vatan and Marion Cotillard’s French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour, but to no avail. Brad’s playing elusive and Marion coquettish, and nary a tremulous spark is curried betwixt them.


Suddenly, they’re in the throes of passion and married and, Bob’s yer uncle, suspicion of Marianne’s true identity and allegiances is announced. At which point, you’re hopefully thoroughly invested in them being together and wishing it wasn’t true. But the fatal problem besetting Zemeckis’ movie, beyond even that it mistakes sluggish for elegant pacing (Zemeckis at his best is a master popcorn movie maker, but he’s not a debonair one, not in the sense of mustering élan and glamour; such gestures feel manufactured in his molten hands), is that you don’t care.


More than that, the problem is one of Steven Knight’s screenplay. He has written some corkers in the past (Eastern Promises, Locke), but here the structure never allows for empathy or investment. Cotillard is distant throughout (though more vital in her performance than the pixel-personified Brad), and so there’s no real power to her final sacrifice, or even her betrayal; this hasn’t been established as a game of cat and mouse from the start, à la Joe Esterhaz’s steamy thrillers (of which Jagged Edge is the exemplar), so when Max is ushered to the SOE basement, assuming a promotion is in the offing, it’s not so much a left turn as one that means others are doing all the donkey work.


And his resultant attempts to clarify matters, most notably during an excursion to France where he gets to “heroically” blow some shit up (and Zemeckis gets that fighter shot in), might be regarded as exposing his ineptitude (it follows his getting a pilot killed and sees him recklessly pursuing his own agenda, so demolishing the Bond super-spy myth) but is all ultimately on a hiding to nothing.


Which isn’t to say Knight and Zemeckis don’t occasionally score. The opening in Casablanca, chock full of Nazis sporting exotic uniform variants (a cossie for every country), makes the most of its Canary Islands shoot, and if the relationship lacks something, there’s the occasional burst of action to compensate as Max strangles a Hun in a phone booth and he and Marianne mow down their targets at a party (I don’t know about Marianne’s suggestion that actual French people wouldn’t be fooled by Brad’s French accent, though; how about just actual people?) These scenes suggest that, if Zemeckis would only get off his lauded perch and have some fun, he could make something as unapologetic as his ‘80s fare, complete with Spielbergian cartoon Nazis. Apart from that, though, commendably, the decision not to pull punches as to Marianne’s identity is at least something.


Simon McBurney, who’s making something of a supporting player name for himself as a spymaster, has a first class scene deep in a London basement as the Special Operations Executive man with bad news, and Matthew Goode scores as Max’s disfigured one-time colleague, abandoned in a nursing home. Jared Harris is also entirely formidable as Max’s superior, and Mike Leigh’s missus, Marion Bailey, walks off with the loathsome Nazi agent garland for her one scene standoff with Brad; Brad may bring the bullet, but she wins the acting award (that said, Anton Lesser barely registers in a comparable role, and his demise is off screen).


Other choices just seem odd, such as staging a party during an air raid, with apparent ambivalence towards the blackout. And the attempt at poetic panache as Marianne gives birth during another air raid falls entirely flat. Then there’s everyone seeming to be on drugs, which is all the rage in WWII lore of late, it seems (see Blitzed, on Hitler’s mashed Third Reich). With that and lesbians flaunting themselves freely, it’s amazing what an unfettered and tolerant era the war was. No wonder people get nostalgic for it.


Of which, what is with WWII being in vogue again? And particularly with Brad leading the charge (Inglorious Basterds, Fury, Allied). We’ve got Dunkirk coming up, and the recently announced Atlantic Wall with Bradley Cooper (fast becoming a facsimile of himself). Perhaps Hollywood is laying the foundations for encouraging an appreciative attitude toward a forthcoming conflict (if Russia’s out, maybe China will do), one that can be viewed as a similarly “just” war, and prep us with a host of ready material? Or it could just be the usual warped barometer, that knowing these movies can do well, they’ll keep on trying until they hit a sporadic, occasional jackpot.


Allied didn’t come cheap (enough), and its failure adds to the stack of Paramount underachievers this year. Brad might wring another 10 years of “youthful” stardom by having his features doctored each movie, but only if he picks his projects more judiciously. This has about as much cachet as the majority of failed star epic romance pictures, proving how difficult a genre it is to get right. Brad’s oft compared to Robert Redford, and he too came a cropper with such fare occasionally. Allied might be Pitt’s Havana.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) (SPOILERS) Warner Bros has been here before. Déjà vu? What happens when you let a filmmaker do whatever they want? And I don’t mean in the manner of Netflix. No, in the sequel sense. You get a Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a classic, obviously, but not one that financially furthered a franchise). And conversely, when you simply cash in on a brand, consequences be damned? Exorcist II: The Heretic speaks for itself. So in the case of The Matrix Resurrections – not far from as meta as The New Batch , but much less irreverent – when Thomas “Tom” Anderson, designer of globally successful gaming trilogy The Matrix , is told “ Our beloved company, Warner Bros, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy ” and it’s going ahead “with or without us”, you can be fairly sure this is the gospel. That Lana, now going it alone, decided it was better to “make the best of it” than let her baby be sullied. Of course, quite what that amounts to in the case of a movie(s) tha

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

It’s always possible to find a good moral reason for killing anybody.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) (SPOILERS) The Assassination Bureau ought to be a great movie. You can see its influence on those who either think it is a great movie, or want to produce something that fulfils its potential. Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . The just-released (and just-flopped) The King’s Men . It inhabits a post-Avengers, self-consciously benign rehearsal of, and ambivalence towards, Empire manners and attitudes, something that could previously be seen that decade in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and sequel Monte Carlo or Bust , also 1969), Adam Adamant Lives! , and even earlier with Kind Hearts and Coronets , whilst also feeding into that “Peacock Revolution” of Edwardian/Victorian fashion refurbishment. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the pop-stylistic savvy that made, say, The President’s Analyst so vivacious.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.