Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenwriters: Jason Fuchs
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Henry Cavill, Dua Lipa, John Cena, Samuel L Jackson, Catherine O’Hara, Sofia Boutella, Ariana DeBose
Matthew Vaughn has done quite a bit for action films in the 21st century. Between Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and the Kingsman franchise, he has certainly made his mark on the landscape of Hollywood blockbusters. This backstory is how he can manage to get together a whopping $200m budget for Argylle, and why it’s astonishing how most of that money seems to have been wasted.
In theory, it should be an incredibly inventive film. A writer of spy thrillers is attacked by an underground intelligence organisation who believe she has some kind of clairvoyance, able to see what actually happens in the real spy world. Now multiple organisations are fighting over Bryce Dallas Howard’s Elly Conway, wanting her to write the next chapter in her “Argylle” series and find out what her spy (played by Henry Cavill) will do next, so that they might discover the plans of their enemies and act accordingly.
A writing of real events as they unfold has been done before. The horror genre of the nineties was rife with it, with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, In the Mouth of Madness, and even scenes from Scream 3 playing into it. For the action genre to put such a substantial amount of money into the idea, one should be certain of success. Thankfully, Argylle is not a total failure.
Vaughn’s trademark action directorial style that he used to such success in the Kingsman films works well, all the actors are decent, and there is an attempt to tackle the idea of split personalities, of an understanding of reality crashing down around you. And although the actual basic underlying plot isn’t new (get hold of a memory stick with lots of classified files on it, how very Mission: Impossible), the fun of seeing Elly hallucinating her handsome, perfect hero in the real world is certainly amusing. That the film is aimed at a family audience (it’s rated 12A in the UK) gives it a cosier feel to Vaughn’s other works, the fight scenes more fun and entertaining than brutal, the comedic moments often centred around Alfie the cat for family guffaws.
The main issue with Argylle is that Vaughn gets diarrhoea of the camera and doesn’t know when to stop. Action scenes go on for far too long and end up wearying the viewer to the point of desperation. An early train fight scene gets the point across, has some fun, and then simply refuses to stop. The film is nearly 2hrs 20mins, and could easily have been a good ten minutes shorter, but the plot refuses to let go. It feels much like a dad that has gone up a lane but keeps insisting what they’re looking for is around the next corner. It’s only adventurous for so long before the kids in the back start screaming to go home.
Vaughn’s love of absurdist, comedic takes on the action and spy thriller, whilst initially working well for the hook of the film, eventually threaten to undermine the entire point of its material. The CGI in the fictional world as seen in the opening scenes is deliberately off, perhaps slightly bad, to suggest a cartoony, fictionalised world where everything turns out right and wanton destruction has no lasting consequences. It’s silly, camp, and that’s the point. Many have argued over the years that the Hobbit Trilogy reduced the quality of its effects to replicate Bilbo’s child-like fantasy telling in his in-story book, and this could be the same principal at play. Certainly, there’s some dodgy green-screen work with Cavill’s Agent Argylle crashing a car over Italian rooftops in pursuit of Dua Lipa’s character.
In so many sequences later on in the film, the real-world action is even more ridiculous than the imaginary, fantasy world of Elle Conway’s stories to the point of absolute stupidity. They end up being done more in a Kingsman fashion, some sequences deliberately drawing on it (especially the colourful exploding heads sequence from the first film). When they inevitably do a crossover film, they’ll argue that that was always the point. But the arc of the film is to show Elly as coming out of her shy shell to be extroverted and competent. Later action scenes are so cartoony that they undermine her new-found strength; this woman can only be capable in a silly, cartoonish, unreal world, whereas the more grounded moments of the earlier scenes show what she is ‘really’ like. She doesn’t become a woman facing danger despite fear, overcoming real, dangerous challenges; she becomes an impervious superhero we feel no danger for, everything defying every law of physics and reality even beyond the spy technology smattered throughout. What could have been an incredible combination of inventive spy thriller and personal identity inspection becomes an excuse for ‘cool’ stuff and ‘awesome’ visuals. Those are great, but only when they go hand in hand with the drama unfolding. They shouldn’t detract from your story.
Argylle misunderstands its USP. It is a vaguely entertaining exercise in over-self-indulgence that ends up thinking that it’s smarter than it actually is. It finishes with serious Return of the King ending syndrome, and a crucial turning point in the plot which feels like it should be twenty minutes from the end is closer to forty because the story simply refuses to admit when it’s time to stop. To add insult to injury, Alfie the cat is just CGI in a good 60% of the shots he’s in, and it’s CGI that is ten times more expensive than Godzilla Minus One, and ten times worse. Perhaps if they’d given the producers the $10-15million that film got, rather than the $200m it actually had, they wouldn’t have wasted it on things they didn’t need, and resorted to thinking rather than seeing.