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Review

Argylle (2024)

Kingsmanning the stone

Argylle comes on the heels of his cynical, violent, goofy quasi-parody espionage franchise, Kingsman, crumbling to critical and box office oblivion. I’m not the only one who thought that The King’s Man was an utter catastrophe — both it and Kingsman: The Golden Circle cling to watchability due solely to their unhinged wackiness rather than anything particularly compelling about the storytelling or voice from the storyteller.

And thus it’s a bit of a surprise that Argylle kind of holds together with a distinct viewpoint. It’s a surprisingly introspective film. Let’s not get carried away: It is still distinctly a Matthew Vaughn film in all its trademark excesses and eccentricities and kinetic violence, but it’s something else, too. Vaughn is reckoning with his own obsession of increasing labyrinthine spy stories. What do his the impulses he spatters onto celluloid say about him as a human? What is it like to live in two worlds, a fantasy creation and a much more dreary reality? For the first time ever, I get the sense that Vaughn wanted to put something of his own soul into a film.

Unfortunately, Vaughn is too impatient to bring this introspection anywhere insightful or moving, except perhaps to lampshade his own amorality and violent fascinations. Mostly, he uses the question “How could a film about someone telling Matthew Vaughn stories still be, in every way, a Matthew Vaughn film?” to construct an elaborate conspiracy narrative, much the same way he used a World War I setting in The King’s Man to design perhaps the stupidest, most goofily British, conspiracy in fiction history (World War I was an elaborate ploy for Scottish independence).

In Argylle, we follow acclaimed airport fiction author Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) as she releases a new book in her popular spy series starring Agent Argylle (seen in cutaways as Henry Cavill with a remarkably bad haircut). Conway is introverted and humble, facing some writer’s block on her next book after some feedback from her mother Ruth (Catherine O’Hara). She plans a trip to her parents’ house to brainstorm ideas, but during a train ride, she’s attacked by an assassin and saved by Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a secret agent who claims her fiction stories are revealing real spy secrets.

What unfolds is a Romancing the Stone-style story of a fusty homebody forced to endure the genre in which she writes fiction. Unlike Romancing the Stone, which basically forgets the author framing story a half hour into the film, Argylle deeply commits to the bit, packing in some serious twists and heft to the parallels between Conway’s fictional world and real world. It’s a pulpy story in a way that works much better than either of Vaughn’s previous two films.

There’s a movie-ruining flaw to the film, though, and that is its pacing. I’m not joking when I say this might be the blockbuster film most sabotaged by its runtime that I’ve ever seen. A 95-minute version of this film could have been delightful. At 139 minutes, it’s like trudging through a muddy swamp with snorkeling flippers on. Every beat is stumbled through and interminably gawked at, every theme and conundrum stated out loud in dialogue six times rather than once, or even, you know, left as subtext.

The film’s biggest plot twist seems like it should kick off a propulsive final act; instead it comes in the first half of the runtime and requires a 25-minute narrative restart as we get some exposition and meet some new characters. The entire final act hinges upon Conway deciding between two parties to help out, and it feels like she flip-flops sixteen times. Honestly, the entire bit could have been cut and the story wouldn’t have been harmed.

Luckily, the cast is pretty damn great, everyone seeming to understand the material and proper tone. Howard makes a personable protagonist, genuinely unassuming and growing and changing during the runtime. The best performance comes from Rockwell, who was born for material like this — deeply funny and charming and self-deprecating, but pulling off the espionage action with punch. Give him more action-comedy starring vehicles, please, Hollywood. The deep bench of supporting actors do well, too, including musician Dua Lipa in her film debut, who is electric in just a few minutes of screentime. Samuel L. Jackson, John Cena, Cavill, O’Hara, and Ariana DeBose are all just fine (though Jackson is surprisingly subdued). Bryan Cranston is a lot of fun as a megalomaniac villain.

The action is a fun evolution of Vaughn’s glossy, Crayola digital effects schema, if you have an appetite for the style: There’s a terrific sequence where Rockwell has to fight through a hallway filled with villains. A couple of set pieces near the end of the film evoke the saturated colors, musical fluidity, and artificiality of the exploding heads sequence at the end of Kingsman: The Secret Service. One late sequence is an ice skating-themed fight scene that brings to mind the goofy Rasputin dance battle in The King’s Man, for example.

I suppose Vaughn has worn out his welcome with audiences, his slick violence and freewheeling plotting resulting in nightmarish reviews and box office numbers for Argylle. But I actually think it’s an interesting step for him as a storyteller — still in his wheelhouse and a refinement of his style, but trying on some new ideas with an introspective bent. It’s nowhere near his best, and with its pacing issues I can’t even call it good, but it’s big and twisty and fun, buoyed by its strong cast and glitzy action sequences in the climax.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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3 replies on “Argylle (2024)”

My dear reviewer, you might be bored with Matthew Vaughn, but I’m not: this film was bonkers in all the right ways and I adored it.

I admit to having a Bruce Dallas Howard-shaped soft spot in my heart, but the rest of the film is extremely good too (Mr Sam Rockwell is really, really good; Mr Henry Cavill might even be giving my performance in the film as a figment of the imagination who also happens to be an indispensable Emotional Support Spy, gleefully absurd hairstyle and all; Also, Ms. O’Hara’s EVIL BRITISH ACCENT is Delightful).

I honestly can’t say for sure whether watching it on the tail of a binge of his filmography made me like it more or less. I think it made me see it as more self-reflective. But I was probably a little burned out on his style. That said, I appear to like it more than most other people in my circle do, most of whom totally panned it (where I’m mixed) so I don’t know for sure.

Fair enough! (Also, I meant to say that Mr Henry Cavill might even have been giving my favourite performance – not necessarily the Best, just my favourite – in the film: apologies for the sloppiness of my hasty original post).

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