Producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn has been behind some of the more influential Hollywood projects over the past couple of decades. Starting out as a producer on Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Vaughn then entered the directing space with 2004’s Layer Cake. His dated, but energetic and fun Kick-Ass was slightly ahead of its time, subverting superhero cliches right before the boom of the genre. Immediately after, he even joined the boom, helming the refreshing prequel X-Men: First Class. Vaughn, a lover of the spy films stemming from the 60’s and 70’s, directed the adaptation of the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic series Kingsman: The Secret Service which became a global hit. The filmmaker’s crass and kinetic stylings were the proper fit for the adaptation, which ultimately spawned two lesser follow-ups; a sequel and a prequel. Vaughn hasn’t left the spy world, however. Returning with not another adaptation, but an original take on the genre. And while it may not be Vaughn’s worst film, it’s easily his most uninspired.
Courtesy Universal Pictures
Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a successful author of a series of acclaimed spy novels centered around the Bond-like Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill, sporting a hideous flat top). The film opens with a segment from her latest book as we see Cavill’s Argylle in sunny Greece attempting to seduce and subsequently chase a femme fatale (Dua Lipa, one of the film’s sole magnificent visuals) in a faux-looking motorcycle chase. Snap back to reality, Elly finds herself in danger by real-life spies who want her dead. Somehow, the events in her novels are coming true, leading to the evil spy syndicate The Division, run by Bryan Cranston’s cunning Ritter, hunting her down for a macguffin she might know the location of. However, Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a charming spy, comes to Elly’s rescue.
The script, penned by Pan scribe Jason Fuchs, has so many differing elements and ideas, and ultimately refuses to explore most of them. The cheeky, jovial tone is closest to Vaughn’s Kingsman films, but the narrative is stuck between Vaughn’s fetish for slick spy thrills with a limp retread of Romancing the Stone and a 90’s action film starring one of this film’s co-stars, the title of which I won’t reveal as it would entirely give away the twist here. The script has very little wit to it, with character banter feeling tired and forced. Vaughn’s film also has a tendency of taking an initially amusing joke and relentlessly beating it to death. Some of these jokes even come back around as literal deus ex machinas.
The reveal of what is truly going on behind Elly’s novels and the supposed real Agent Argylle is, itself, a well done twist that groups together a few more genuine reveals, but once the stakes are fully established, there isn’t a single character worth caring about, leaving the remaining 90 minutes left of the film feeling far longer. There is some fleeting charm in seeing Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell lead a spy thriller with plenty of fight choreography and supposed globe-trotting. Howard and Rockwell make for a fun on-screen duo, often doing a heroic job of elevating their faulty material, but their charm and chemistry can only make up for so much. The rest of the cast is either underutilized or, such is the case with supporting players like John Cena and Samuel L. Jackson, all but relegated to single minutes of screentime; Oscar-winner Ariana Debose, even less with maybe a dozen lines total.
Courtesy Universal Pictures
Toned down are most all of Vaughn’s worst, most juvenile impulses — largely due to its bloodless PG-13 rating. Even in Vaughn’s weakest works — namely Kingsman: The Golden Circle — they tend to have several gonzo creative choices that are at the very least strong choices. Argylle suffers from an overwhelming blandness that Vaughn’s filmography simply has not stooped to before. The action sequences are coated in smeary-looking CG and locales that feel entirely like green screen backdrops. One aspect most spy films tend to nail is the globe-trotting element, as it’s part of the appeal. Crafting set pieces around exotic locales has been at the forefront of spy movies since their inception. So taking the real-life geography out of the equation, substituting for artificial sets and endless green screen negates a critical thrill of the genre. Would Tom Cruise be the star he is today if he rarely traveled and didn’t do any of his own stunts? So then why should we be willing to accept a spy movie without any natural-looking setting? Has Matthew Vaughn even seen the horror that is Red Notice?
Say what you will about the sequel and prequel, but Vaughn’s first Kingsman had a scrappy charm that matched its inventive action sequences and earned its outlandish finale. The sluggishly paced Argylle attempts to match the first Kingsman’s finale, but comes up wildly short. On paper, the big set piece during the finale has potential, but it’s so clunkily conceptualized and punctuated by the most egregious digital effects in the entire film. A character skates around on crude oil during a shootout and from the looks of it, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single shot that isn’t caked in rubbery CG.
And while not something I typically notice, but this has some of the most egregious hair pieces and wigs I’ve ever seen in a studio film. Every single time an actor is wearing a wig or false facial hair, you can always tell. Whereas the Mission Impossible films have fun and use that trope of spies in disguise to their advantage; in Argylle, it’s unironic and a consistent eye sore. What purpose does putting Henry Cavill in an awful flat top serve the film?? It’s never a joke in the film, but you can’t help but giggle to yourself whenever Cavill, a legitimate movie star, is on-screen.
Courtesy Universal Pictures
Argylle has a handful of fun ideas but fails to string them together in a satisfying, or even vaguely clever manner. Running at a bloated 139 minutes, Matthew Vaughn’s long-winded spy movie doesn’t quite reach the unbearable lows of his Kingsman: The Golden Circle, but it’s utter refusal to rise about a wafting stench of mediocrity almost makes it equally insulting.
Argylle is now playing in theaters.