No Twisted Mind Can Make a Good Movie Out of Argylle
Matthew Vaughn must be stopped.
Matthew Vaughn’s finest moment might have been his downfall. The now-famous church fight in 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, which showed Colin Firth’s gentleman spy slaughter a bunch of bigots to the dulcet tones of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” became a pop culture Moment that seemed to herald the most exciting new director in genre filmmaking. It was a bloody ballet of over-the-top bloodshed and kinetic action, the centerpiece of a slick reinvention of the classic James Bond spy thriller. And ever since then, Vaughn has been desperately trying to recreate it, to increasingly embarrassing results.
The latest sad attempt is Argylle, a movie that might as well be the Kingsman “Free Bird” sequence as an exceedingly hollow 139-minute feature film. It’s a nesting doll of a movie — a glib, winking, referential spy comedy that layers twist upon twist on top of each other to hide the fact there’s nothing at the center.
Written by Pan screenwriter Jason Fuchs (not Taylor Swift, as Argylle’s bizarre viral marketing campaign would have you believe), Argylle follows successful spy novelist Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), an anxious, introverted writer who prefers the company of her cat to people. But while suffering from writer’s block, Elly finds herself the target of real-life spies, who either want to murder her or exploit her imagination. As it turns out, her books are so true to life they’ve predicted real events in the espionage world, and even unveiled a sinister covert agency led by the ruthless Ritter (Bryan Cranston). The only person who leaps to her defense is the spy Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who seeks her help to find a master key that can bring down Ritter’s evil operation once and for all.
The most generous thing to be said about Argylle is that it’s dedicated to being a goofy time. It embraces the inherent silliness of its Romancing the Stone-esque premise, and is game to poke fun at both the espionage genre and Vaughn’s own signature heightened style. But the problem with Argylle is that everything about it — from its metatextual narrative, to its generic quips and clichéd twists — thinks it’s exceptionally clever. Vaughn lays the self-awareness on thick (there are multiple instances of characters winking at the camera) and delivers each twist with the kind of smug self-satisfaction of a man who thinks he thought of them first.
But we’re long past the point when Vaughn’s subversive stylings could have been considered fresh. Instead of coming off like the punk-rock disruptor he once might have been, Vaughn falls back on his greatest hits. This time, rather than just one “Free Bird” sequence, he’s got at least three intricately choreographed fights set to some catchy needle-drop.
Vaughn, adept visualist that he is, manages to make the fight scenes entertaining. The camera bends and contorts with each high kick, slow-mo is deployed at alternately clever and cheesy intervals, and fiction blends with reality in creative sequences in which Henry Cavill’s fictional Agent Argylle smoothly enters and exits Elly’s visions. Vaughn delivers some genuinely good visual tricks and gags, only to reuse them to the point of redundancy. One particularly goofy camera angle — a close-up POV shot of the characters’ beaming faces as they do increasingly absurd dance moves — is brought back so many times the movie starts to feel like a surreal fever drfeam.
The cast is at least game, with Rockwell leading the charm offensive. He and Howard make a fun duo, but their chemistry is odd; the movie never gives them breathing room to form a real connection, and their dynamic doesn’t get to evolve beyond one of them acting as the beleaguered party. It speaks volumes that the movie’s emotional climax hinges on flashbacks to one of the duo’s goofier moments. The silliness takes the place of any form of sentimentality, leaving you emotionally bereft.
Meanwhile, supporting cast members Cranston, Catherine O’Hara, Samuel L. Jackson, Dua Lipa, and John Cena ham it up, without adding much to the conversation. And then there’s Cavill, the face of both the movie and Elly’s books, who plays the smooth Bond analog to a tee but is given little freedom to do much else. For the most part, Argylle’s star-studded cast is there for you to think “Oh, they’re in this,” while remembering past movies where you liked them so much more.
While there are some fun moments and clever twists buried within Argylle (though the ultimate twist is well and truly stupid), the movie is an overlong, bizarrely paced grind that overstays its welcome. It’s fitting that its overplayed trailer, whose tagline, “From the Twisted Mind of Matthew Vaughn,” assaulted audiences for what felt like an eternity, basically telegraphed the entire experience for audiences. This is Vaughn at his most unbridled and excessive, his style and flair threatening to detach you from any sense of reality. It’s as unbearable as it sounds.
Argylle opens in theaters Feb. 2.
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