After beginning with a good deal of promise, the career of director Matthew Vaughn has frustratingly plateaued. Vaughn got people’s attentions with the Guy Ritchie-esque Layer Cake and the fantasy adaptation Stardust (2007), then breathed a lot of new life into a spiraling franchise with the flavorful prequel X-Men: First Class and put up big box office numbers with Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015). Since then, the English filmmaker has shown little interest in expanding his repertoire or challenging himself. Vaughn’s two most recent directing credits make his complacency crystal-clear: the entertaining sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) and the unwanted prequel The King’s Man (2021). Vaughn may not be the household name that his friend and colleague Ritchie is, but he’s similarly content to coast on a dependable brand of cinema that is known and respected at least within the industry.
At first glance, Argylle appears to be a step outside Vaughn’s comfort zone and an ambitious undertaking. Here is a film with an original screenplay and no pre-existing source text. For this, Vaughn has rounded up a large and impressive cast of in-demand international talent, including Kingsman alumnus Samuel L. Jackson and Ritchie collaborator Henry Cavill.
Written by Jason Fuchs, an American with credits which include the story for DC’s 2017 hit Wonder Woman and the screenplay for 2015’s misfire Pan, spy action comedy Argylle centers on Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), a successful author of a series of spy novels. Conway has just published the fourth book in her series, a line so popular the books sell like hotcakes despite a basic cover design and unimaginative titles like “Book 4.” Promoting her new release at a convention full of passionate readers, Conway is already at work and nearly finished with the series’ fifth book when she is approached on a train by Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a man who identifies himself as a spy.
Soon, Aidan is fending off entire railcars of lethal threats with his bare hands, something that Elly keeps imagining as the antics of her fictional hero Argylle (Cavill), a suave and bespoke broad-shouldered, flat-topped agent. The real spy, Aidan, is far less cool and calculated, enduring a bevy of blows whilst still keeping Elly safe from these determined and mysterious assassins.
Fuchs’ highly flawed screenplay repeatedly relies upon twists that are designed to deepen the intrigue of Elly and Aidan’s situation and keep you guessing. Each development, unfortunately, undermines any world-building that has preceded it and each is more implausible than the one before it. What begins like a better version of Sandra Bullock’s hit 2022 adventure comedy The Lost City continues to get worse at every turn and there are many of those en route to an unreasonable 139-minute runtime.
It’s not spoiling anything to reveal that Elly’s predicament, dubious at first, is genuine and that a woman accustomed to writing spy shenanigans is now smack in the middle of the real thing. While it seems like that premise would have some comic potential, borrowing from a tradition that at least extends forty years back to Romancing the Stone, Argylle grows increasingly difficult to take seriously with all the suspension of disbelief it requires.
The action is competently staged, which is no surprise for someone as seasoned in the genre as Vaughn is. But the stakes to it grow more meaningless with every ludicrous new twist.
Despite its sharp and steady decline throughout, Argylle is not an entirely joyless experience. Rockwell, as always, is a delight and it’s a pleasure to see him sink his teeth into a true leading role rather than the supporting ones he more frequently enjoys. No actor would get more laughs out of this material than he, but the entertainment is all up front as the character gets dragged through mundane ambiguity, uninspired plotting, and a sparkless romance. He still fares better than Howard, who it’s genuinely surprising to see fill a lead role this focal after the Jurassic World series so quickly burned through the goodwill it initially attracted. The actress seems thisclose to booking Hallmark movies and nothing that transcends in this major movie with an indefensible $200 million budget seems to change that fate.
It’s fairly remarkable that a high-profile film with such trendy gets as John Cena and Dua Lipa should give the spotlight to Rockwell and Howard, but one comes away wishing that Hollywood had something more fulfilling to offer either lead. One has to imagine that such an epic budget can only give them the financial freedom to take bigger and more interesting risks moving forward.
Even with supporting roles filled by such accomplished and likable individuals as Catherine O’Hara and Bryan Cranston, Argylle does little to endear the viewer. Clearly, Vaughn is respected enough to attract this distinguished and eclectic cast, but it’s hard to remember why as the movie subjects you to about three too many slow-motion action sequences set to 1980s power ballads including an absurdly over-the-top colorful, climactic ballet. Vaughn can’t seem bothered to do anything he hasn’t personally already done before and maybe that is to expected for someone who’s been married to supermodel Claudia Schiffer for over twenty years. Argylle feels like a project that was pitched to and rejected by Ritchie, but that probable history is less embarrassing than the end credits’ crowd-befuddling twist to connect this to the increasingly irrelevant Kingsman universe. Did Disney/Fox have to sign off on that? Surely, Vaughn has heard the expression “beating a dead horse” or, as they say in England, “flogging a dead horse.”
The best part of Argylle is Alfie the Scottish Fold cat, the big-eyed, flat-faced feline who drew many of the biggest reactions from my advance screening’s crowd, even with unconvincing CGI doing most of the acting for him.
Now in Theaters
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
DVDizzy Top Stories
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- Now on home video, #1 movie of 2023: Barbie 4K reviewed.