Robert Zemeckis' "Allied" begins in Casablanca, 1942 — talk about setting the bar high — where two skilled assassins, played by Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, have been sent to assassinate a German ambassador. On the eve of their deadly mission, they drive out into the Moroccan dunes and, throwing caution to the very dusty wind, proceed to make passionate love in the front seat of their car, the camera swirling feverishly around them as a sand storm rages in mimicry of their grand passion.
Zemeckis isn't exactly known for his torrid love scenes. But this is one exception that, in its blend of emotional directness and technological sophistication (watch how that camera moves), hits one of his reliable sweet spots as a director. A digital pioneer with the soul of an old-time classicist, Zemeckis hails from a long line of entertainers, including Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, who have broadened the medium's horizons in order to reaffirm its most traditional pleasures.
It hasn't always worked, as the eye-popping but bloodless performance-capture worlds of "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf" attest. But more recently, with movies like "Flight" and last year's underrated "The Walk," Zemeckis has made a welcome return to live-action form, confirming that he does his best work when he uses technology to amplify rather than nullify the human factor.
In "Allied," a handsomely crafted, fitfully effective throwback to earlier epics of love, betrayal and wartime espionage, most of that digital wizardry is of a stealthy, decorative nature. Working with the production designer Gary Freeman, whose detailed sets provide the scaffolding for a range of subtle but elaborate visual effects, Zemeckis builds a polished vintage frame for his stars, and for the tricky game of shifting emotional and political loyalties mapped out by the screenwriter Steven Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things," "Eastern Promises").
Parachuting into Morocco, Max Vatan (Pitt) makes his way to Casablanca to be "reunited" with his "wife," Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard). In a city draped with Third Reich banners, no one — not even the audience — initially realizes that these two gorgeous-looking Parisian expats are in fact assassins working for the Allied Forces: Max is a Quebecois operative employed by British special operations, while Marianne is a member of the French Resistance.
For the benefit of spectators on either side of the screen, Max and Marianne's marital charade requires professional detachment but also a measure of believable sexual tension, both of which they are willing to supply in abundance. As soon becomes clear, they are also exceptionally good at maintaining their cover under tense circumstances.
OK, so Max's French needs a little work, as Marianne points out (and she's being generous). But to watch as Max suavely passes a test set for him by a Nazi officer is to marvel at his consummate professionalism — and also, perhaps, to appreciate the unspoken parallels between spy craft and screen acting. Each is a form of deception predicated on detailed aliases, careful memorization and a fabulous wardrobe — in this case, courtesy of the costume designer Joanna Johnston, who has a ravishing eye for wide-brimmed hats and Italian silks.
Marianne herself underlines the metaphor when, explaining her ability to ingratiate herself so fully with some unsuspecting German associates, she warns against detached, calculated technique: "I keep the emotions real." Her words will come back to haunt her. Naturally, she and Max end up playing their parts far too well, and not long after their mission is completed, they decide to transform their sham marriage into a real one.
Soon they're living in London with an infant daughter, whose birth is the first of two scenes played, for drama-heightening effect, against a fiery air raid. A different kind of bombshell is on the way: Two of Max's higher-ups, played by an excellent Jared Harris and a supremely ratty Simon McBurney, inform Max that they suspect Marianne of being a double agent.
As Max undertakes a series of secret quests to clear Marianne's name, yielding some unexpected collateral damage, the film patiently underscores his sense of a noose tightening with every minute, even if it's not around his own neck. The golden desert vistas of the first act, redolent of David Lean and suggestive of endless possibilities, stand in stark contrast to the Vatans' cramped quarters in Hampstead Heath, where abruptly ringing telephones and even a bustling house party evoke a potent sense of entrapment.
Should his wife be found guilty, Max is under strict orders to execute her himself, in accordance with the "intimate betrayal rule" of the era. Marital double-crosses, it seems, were something of an occupational hazard back then.
In some ways, "Allied" suggests a resolutely old-fashioned companion piece to the 2005 comic caper "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," which cast Pitt and his future wife, Angelina Jolie, as spousal spies assigned to kill each other. (The obligatory gossip that has coalesced around Pitt and Cotillard in the wake of his divorce from Jolie makes the two movies feel even more like bookends.)
But "Allied" might also remind you of another very different Pitt vehicle, "Inglourious Basterds," and not just because both pictures feature the German actor August Diehl in a small but crucial role as a Nazi. For all its fantastical revisionism, Quentin Tarantino's World War II revenge fantasy paid close, rigorous attention to its characters' language skills and speech patterns. This was a world of disguises, after all, where a single phonetic gaffe or misplaced idiom could get an operative killed.
Ironically, it's on that score that "Allied" doesn't entirely convince. Pitt sells you easily enough on the character's killer instincts, and his square-jawed intensity suits a man whose determination to vindicate the woman he loves is tinged with both desperation and anger. But as fine as the actor looks in a gray mackintosh or a three-piece suit, there's a matinee-idol stiffness to his performance that keeps full immersion at bay; somehow, a crucial dimension of emotional verisimilitude is missing.
Cotillard, a more chameleonic presence as well as a seasoned femme fatale ("Inception," "The Dark Knight Rises," "Macbeth"), fares rather better, to the point where she almost seems to undermine the movie's choice of perspective. While Marianne is a radiant enigma by design — loving wife and mother, professional killer, possible traitor — you can't help but feel, by the end, that a more interesting story might well have been told from her point of view.
In the tense final moments, Cotillard's performance achieves some of the piercing gravity of her work in James Gray's "The Immigrant." But this movie's delicate, lingering emotion isn't just a function of her acting, or of an ending whose wrenching finality seems all the more inevitable in retrospect. Even when "Allied" loses its footing, there is something unmistakably touching about Zemeckis' commitment to evoking a world so quietly, heroically out of step with the times.
MPAA rating: R, for violence, some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Playing: In general release