If a movie's central narrative hook is hanging right there, in the middle of a coming-attractions trailer already seen online and in multiplexes by millions, are we really going to get hung up on what's a spoiler and what isn't?
In the swank but waxy new World War II-era Robert Zemeckis film "Allied," starring Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard and whatever sunglasses they happen to be wearing at the time, we're in the land of patently artificial intrigue, as opposed to fakery trying to be, in any sense, real.
The opening shot's impressively ridiculous, as Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Pitt) floats, twirls, parachutes, boomph, onto a sand dune somewhere in the French Moroccan desert. He does so with the aid of the extravagant digital effects that director Zemeckis loves so much. He knows how to use them, as proved recently by the excellent "Flight" and even the frustrating "The Walk." He also knows how to over- and misapply them, and with problematic material, that's when the trouble starts.
Vatan works undercover for the British government. In Casablanca he meets up with another special operative, the French Resistance agent Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard). In a slightly zestier screenplay than this one, by Steven Knight, Marianne would be described by some minor character as "ze most beautiful woman in all of Casablanca."
The two pose as French wife and husband, infiltrating Vichy high society for a higher cause. Mission: to kill a top-ranking German ambassador and then go their separate ways, Max back to London, Marianne to Paris. But their sham marriage becomes complicated by Real Feelings, brought on in part by Real Sex, i.e., fake movie sex, in a car rocked by a digital sandstorm.
Back in London, this time a couple for real, Max and Marianne settle into domestic life in Hampstead after Marianne gives birth to their child in the middle of a digital blitzkrieg. Then, Max is informed by his superiors that his wife may well be a double agent. Is she or isn't she? "Allied" answers that question in unevenly engaging fashion, taking a cue from WWII-era Hollywood pictures such as "The Man I Married," aka "I Married a Nazi."
Certain things remind you how shrewd a filmmaker Zemeckis can be when his instincts are buzzing. The first on-screen murder, involving Max and a German officer who sees through his disguise, is sudden, harsh, perfectly staged and framed. Screenwriter Knight's credits include some absorbing human-scale thrillers, "Dirty Pretty Things," "Eastern Promises" and the more recent "Locke." Zemeckis doesn't rush through the exposition, and the Casablanca rooftop conversations between Max and Marianne lay the groundwork for a slow-burning romance.
But the matches are damp. In a movie built around two characters, Pitt does not hold up his 50 percent. As written Max is a reactive dullard. Whether it's the demands of his occasional, stilted French-language dialogue or the challenge of simply keeping up with Cotillard, a movie star who's a more surprising actor, Pitt struggles to engage with the material. The audience, I suspect, may struggle, too.
One commenter writing on the online film site imdb.com responded to the "Allied" trailer, laying out a simple equation: "Inglourious Basterds + Mr & Mrs Smith = Awesome!" Zemeckis isn't going for that combination; he's trying to finesse the material in a classier, old-school direction. The supporting players, including Lizzy Caplan as Max's bohemian, free-thinking sister and Simon McBurney as a British intelligence "rat-catcher," can't do much with what they're given. The clothes, on the other hand, by costume designer Joanna Johnston: fantastique. If only hats and eyewear were all.
MPAA rating: R (for violence, some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use).
Running time: 2:04