Robert Zemeckis more or less opened the 21st century with his “animated mo-cap phase”, which started in 2004 with The Polar Express. And it swiftly ended in 2011 with the historic box office catastrophe that was Mars Needs Moms. What followed were Flight and The Walk, both of which suggested a new phase for Zemeckis: A phase in which his movies were forgettable mediocrities redeemed solely by one (1) jaw-dropping effects sequence.

Mercifully, Allied spreads the tension and the rising drama far more evenly than either of Zemeckis’ previous two efforts, and it’s a much better movie for it.

We begin after French spy Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) has spent the past several months ingratiating herself with German officials in the Nazi-occupied territory of… *heavy sigh* Casablanca. No, the classic cinematic masterpiece is never directly referenced, but there is a crucial point in the third act involving a character who plays a rousing performance of La Marseilles on piano. But I digress.

Anyway, Marianne has been telling everyone about her impossibly perfect husband who’s always away on business. The story proper opens with the “husband” materializing in the form of Canadian RAF Wing Commander Max Vatan (Brad Pitt, who’s been building up a pretty good career for himself in killing Nazis). What follows is some neat romantic interplay as these two spies dance along the line between fact and fiction. There’s always the question of how well they really know each other and how close they should get to each other, even as they act the loving married couple for anyone who might be watching.

To make a long story short (too late!), our two spies are able to complete their mission and kill a German ambassador. In fact, it almost seems to go too easily. A few short weeks later, Marianne is brought to London so she and Max can get married for real. Cut to a year later, when our two lovebirds are still happily married and raising an infant daughter.

Then Max finds out that his wife might have been a German spy this whole time. Cue the record scratch.

Yes, this is another movie in which the front half and the back half are both entirely different stories. Normally, this would create some serious pacing issues. However, this film is different in that there’s a strong unifying thread between the two halves: The question of how much our romantic leads really know about each other, and whether what they have is real.

Even if the circumstances change, there’s still the question of what these characters will do and where their loyalties truly lie, which is really the backbone of any decent spy thriller. Plus, the characters’ marriage and everything they have together boosts the stakes in a nicely satisfying way, especially since Pitt and Cotillard do such a stellar job of delivering these characters and their chemistry together.

With all of that said, there’s still the fact that we’ve got two stories — either one of which would be enough to sustain its own movie — and they’re forced to compete for screentime in this two-hour film. Not that the results are awful, but there is a definite sense that the characters and their stories might have gone so much further if there was only more time.

Cotillard and Pitt are such thoroughly vetted talents that I don’t feel like any explanation is necessary as to how brilliant they are. Cotillard is especially crucial — the whole movie depends on maintaining the question of whether Marianne is a traitor, and she’s being played by Talia al Ghul.

The supporting cast is loaded with talent as well. Jared Harris is noteworthy as a military brass who serves as Max’s de facto confidant. Simon McBurney only gets one scene as the face of British counterintelligence, but he rocks it. Matthew Goode appears briefly, completely unrecognizable in his heartbreaking and gut-wrenching scene as a wounded veteran.

But my own personal favorite in the supporting cast has to be Lizzy Caplan, bringing some badly needed levity as Max’s sister. Yet she’s also a lesbian who seems to be living openly, and everybody is apparently okay with that. While not problematic, it’s still somewhat questionable, given that this was definitely a time and place quite perilous for homosexuals (see: Alan Turing).

The production design is marvelous, especially with regard to the WWII-era warplanes. Once again, Zemeckis’ passion for airplanes pays all sorts of dividends with only a few brief plane-related scenes. But I was still more impressed with the sound design, which amplified certain background noises and utilized total silence in a way that augmented the tension beautifully. Ditto for the score.

All told, Allied is a perfectly good movie. It works effectively as a spy thriller and a romantic drama (though the former admittedly works far more than the latter), in large part due to the spectacular work from the cast, and the moments of action are none too shabby either. It suffers a bit for being two feature-length stories forced to share a single feature-length running time, but I’ve seen other movies try the same and fail a whole lot harder. Recommended.

For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.