Star-studded spy film Argylle blends bland fiction with absurd reality
Writer/director Matthew Vaughn started his career as a producer on films made by Guy Ritchie, and the majority of films that he’s helmed himself – ones like Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, and the Kingsman series – have had a anarchic feeling similar to those of his mentor. Vaughan’s latest, Argylle, doesn’t follow a lot of rules, and perhaps a bit more structure would have been beneficial.
Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the successful author of a book series about the spy Argylle. When doing book readings or trying to write a new novel, she imagines the characters in a series of cutaway scenes featuring Henry Cavill, John Cena, and Ariana DeBose. Her rich imagination has earned her plenty of fans and, it seems, some enemies.
Her writing is so believable that a global syndicate, led by Ritter (Bryan Cranston) is convinced she knows too much about them and must be eliminated. Enter Aidan (Sam Rockwell), an agent sent by what he promises is the “good” side to protect her. Elly is pulled into a game of espionage that mirrors her writing in many aspects, with more than a few surprises along the way.
Vaughn begins the film with a very goofy sequence involving Elly’s characters, one that features some of the worst visual effects you’ll see in an action film. But when it’s revealed that the sequence is coming from Elly’s mind, it makes it seem as if the cheesiness and bad CGI is supposed to be that way.
That blending of reality and fiction continues through the rest of the film, never making it clear if Vaughn is in on the joke and trying to make a bad-looking film, or if he’s actually lost his touch. It’s easy to see many moviegoers just going with the flow and laughing it up at the film’s many over-the-top moments and various absurdities. But for this critic’s money, the film is too clever by half, giving the film’s many big stars a lot to do with nothing tangible with which to ground themselves.
If the film were played more straightforward, it might have a legitimate chance to be a decent spy thriller. But by going for laughs in almost every scene, Vaughn is asking a lot of his actors to play both serious and ridiculous at the same time. Some of them – Rockwell, Cranston, Cena, Catherine O’Hara – know how to balance things, but Howard is a bit out of her depth, and with her as the lead, it drags the whole story down.
Additionally, even though it’s likely a marketing decision and not a filmmaking one, the film’s character poster is one of the more misleading ones in recent memory. The film’s actual stars – Howard and Rockwell – are pushed to the back in favor of actors like Cavill, Samuel L. Jackson, and Dua Lipa, each of which have significantly less screentime (one shockingly so). Anyone expecting to enjoy those actors will likely be disappointed.
Argylle fits in with Vaughn’s recent films, but since his last two films were critically savaged, that’s not a good thing. Making a good action comedy takes more than just putting a lot of crazy stuff on the screen, and in the case of this film, Vaughn doesn’t know when to say when.
Argylle opens in theaters on February 2.