Ten years ago, there was a time when Matthew Vaughn directed the Kingsman films. His first installment, The Secret Service, may not have been great, but it worked as a campy, stylised and gleefully offensive homage to the spy genre. It didn’t take long for the joke to run old in The Golden Circle, where it got carried away with its ludicrous set-pieces, uneven writing, and a lazy reliance on gross-out (and even misogynistic) humour. At first glance, you wouldn’t feel wrong for thinking that Argylle could have been something fresh for Vaughn. Sadly, not only do the results prove that wrong but also show that even Vaughn’s distinctly over-stylised creative control can be mistaken for an A.I.-generated amalgamation of the least exciting genre elements of spy, comedy, action and thriller films, especially something along the lines of Apple TV+’s disastrous Ghosted.
Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a reclusive author making a living off her novels around popular character and agent Argylle (Henry Cavill). Despite her general successes and her ability to live a comfortably introverted existence with her Scottish Fold cat, Alfie, she struggles to write the perfect ending for her fifth Argylle book. Going on a train trip to London to meet up with her mother (Catherine O’Hara) and brainstorm ideas for a better ending, she survives an ambush, no thanks to spy Aidan (Sam Rockwell), where she discovers that her books are mirroring real-world events and that a devious organisation known as the Division has targeted her to read what her next chapter reveals. The further the lines between reality and fiction blur, the more Elly realises there’s more to the Argylle books she’s been writing – and her life, as such.
Yes, you do get to find out who the real agent Argylle is, and unless you’ve read the spoiler-y press announcement three years ago, it may come as an absurd surprise or not. However, it takes sitting through half of an obnoxious film, where its seemingly self-aware setup paves the way for a smug approach to its overly twisty and inconsistently paced narrative. The other half of Argylle is no better. It’s hard to enjoy Argylle as a “turn-your-brain-off” action flick when it's over-reliance on twists tries to make it smarter than it is and when, between the miscalculated action sequences, its plotting feels unusually dull.
Admittedly, early portions of Argylle left me intrigued. Even when it struggles to set itself up as a campy spoof of – and homage to – the spy genre, I tried to be onboard with the ridiculous nonsense Argylle threw at me. As an aspiring creative writer, the fiction vs. reality element had me invested, despite the clunky execution. But those hopes were eventually eroded by its constant need to throw in a twist or hammer exposition into the viewer’s brain, which brings the pacing to a halt.
To be honest, I can’t tell you how many twists Argylle has because of how I lost count of them. Unfortunately, while there may be a few good surprises in store, Argylle uses up its effective tricks all too quickly, and its try-hard nature eventually reveal its true colours. By the time it unveiled its millionth twist, I was rolling my eyes, no longer able to keep up with Argylle’s arrogant joke, and when looking back at the narrative as a whole, it doesn’t feel rewarding. Even the character arcs – and the central relationship – feel unsatisfying because of their lack of dimensions. Plot holes be damned because of how meaningless the spy shenanigans feel.
But even Vaughn’s desperation to drag out substance over an unnecessarily lengthy runtime gets lost amidst his over-the-top style. And unfortunately, that style is no longer as pleasant or fun to watch. For a significant majority of Argylle, its genre set-pieces are against a spectacle of garish colours, artificial CGI and distracting greenscreen backgrounds. Without using these visual flaws to its advantage to distinguish between the worlds of reality and fiction, it transforms Argylle into the ugliest $200m+ blockbuster since The Flash, and one must question where its budget is going. To Vaughn? To the pay salaries of that ridiculous ensemble cast? To the Apple executives? To the cat? I understand that things have changed, and animal safety regulations must be maintained on film sets. That, I can pass. What I cannot pass is how unbelievable the cat’s CGI appears. And I don’t blame the overworked VFX artists, I blame whoever approved the terrible design for the final cut.
Argylle’s visual atrocities reach such overwhelming lows that it requires further suspension of disbelief to comprehend its climactic action spectacle. It’s hard to enjoy Argylle’s set-pieces when they employ janky handheld camerawork to force us into the action, and even more so when their distracting utilisation of rock and disco needle-drops and constant cutting display constant disregard for tone or continuity. That becomes further hampered by how it forcibly inserts the annoying familiarity of its jokes, which are almost entirely absent of wit. Any entertainment gained from its earlier fight choreography is lost because it follows repetitive patterns and becomes difficult to remember. Even when Argylle gets a chance to breathe in its sluggish pacing, its exposition-driven scenes are let down by flat, forgettable cinematography.
It’s alarming when a talented, albeit ridiculously assembled, cast of A-listers constantly struggles to elevate the increasingly unfunny and ludicrous material that fails them. Argylle either commits the crime of wasting cast members like Sofia Boutella, Ariana DeBose and Samuel L. Jackson or letting others like Bryce Dallas Howard and Bryan Cranston overact their material. Whether they willingly worked with Vaughn as a favour for him or had genuine passion for Argylle’s eye-rolling screenplay, the performances aren’t good. The only one who gets out unscathed is Sam Rockwell. Only he is capable of delivering cringe-worthy jokes without feeling self-conscious. Even with the second-hand embarrassment of watching Sam teach Bryce how to crush a baddie’s head by doing some dance move called “the twist” (which is laughably used for an emotional payoff towards Argylle’s conclusion), it’s slightly amusing because of Sam’s commitment to the bit.
But Sam Rockwell deserves better. So does Bryan Cranston, Dua Lipa, John Cena and Samuel L. Jackson. So does Henry Cavill and his terrible haircut (whoever was responsible for that deserves to go to hairdresser jail). So does the entire crew. So do all of us. Unfortunately, Argylle’s unbearable experience doesn’t end there, for it saves the worst twist for last with a mid-credits scene that not only sets up a franchise but a possible shared universe. It doesn’t feel like a promise. It feels like a threat. If this is what high-concept, “original” action cinema can offer, the future of cinema faces a possibly bleak year.
Rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Argylle is currently playing in Australian cinemas and will stream on Apple TV+ at an unspecified date.