Argylle (Universal, PG-13)

I’d say Argylle plays out mostly like a soap opera, but that would be an insult to soap operas. I’d also fully quote Shakespeare’s famous Macbeth line which includes the phrase “[…] a tale told by an idiot […],” but the film infuriated me chiefly because I know Matthew Vaughn isn’t an idiot. He has made fantastic entertainments in the past, such as Layer Cake and X-Men: First Class. Unfortunately, he has chosen to live purely in his Kingsman series, or at least a Kingsman-adjacent tone for the better part of a decade now, and it’s become excruciatingly stale. The first Kingsman film was charming, hilarious, and exciting; even genuinely groundbreaking at points. Despite a few fleeting solid jokes and interesting visuals, Argylle ends even more flatly than it begins: as sound and fury signifying nothing (if you’ll forgive the paraphrase).

On paper, Argylle should work quite well. A solid cast in an espionage caper directed by Vaughn, who has a proven track record of visual flourishes which elevate this kind of material. The material is the main issue here, but Vaughn’s visual sensibilities no longer feel as revolutionary as they once did. There is nothing even approaching the brilliance of the brawl in the church from Kingsman: The Secret Service here. Just scene after scene after scene of characters regurgitating exposition to each other.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell acquit themselves quite well; they’re the pillars which keep the movie from being totally unwatchable in its second half. Howard plays Elly Conway, a writer of spy thrillers centered around Agent Argylle (played in fantasy sequences by Henry Cavill). When Rockwell’s Aidan — initially disguised as a scruffy stranger on a train — reveals himself to be a secret agent, Elly is drawn into a clandestine world of unlikely double-crosses, important digital files, and impromptu comic violence. Oh, and she has a cat named Alfie who she carries around through all of this on her back in a cat-pack.

Argylle’s first action sequence — a vision of Elly’s writing acted out by Cavill and John Cena as Wyatt, Argylle’s assistant — is quite enjoyable and often fairly funny, although it’s already clear here that the actors, Vaughn, and cinematographer George Richmond are doing most of the heavy lifting. What’s on the page is the problem. Screenwriter Jason Fuchs should have taken a hint from something like the Spider-Verse series. There’s a reason for the level of zany humor a film like that goes for. It’s not just inventive and clever for cleverness’ sake. Even though it’s obviously not realistic dialogue because it’s a fantastical situation, that amount of humor makes up for it; makes characters relatable to the audience; makes us care about them. Without any sort of adequate comedic punch-up, a story like this runs the risk of feeling tedious because it’s hard to care for characters who have only talked about the plot of the film for two and a half hours. You can be as visually inventive as you want, but if you’re going to spend that amount of time with any characters, you had better make sure the audience cares about them. Otherwise, every raising of the stakes just feels like filler.

Other action sequences have their moments, such as Aidan meeting Elly on the train and fighting off bad guys by the seat of his pants. Rockwell’s delivery of what paltry amount of jokes he’s given usually lands well. These and a few other elements work in the film’s favor. It’s just that the film’s attempt at a human element wasn’t present at the script level. A lot of talented actors are therefore left to twist and shout in a movie that ultimately just sort of twists in the wind with every new twist. | George Napper

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