The cinema of Matthew Vaughn could quite possibly be the most insufferable currently being financed by Hollywood. Say what you will about the MCU — certainly legitimate complaints abound — but even at their worst and same-rest and most digitally-engineered, they aren’t as derivative, smugly insistent on their own cleverness, or downright ugly as Vaughn’s movies. His charmless Kingsman movies are particularly irritating, ostensibly parodies of the increasingly self-serious Bond films but hewing closer to an Austin Powers knockoff, only equipped with heavier violence and more sex. Vaughn’s latest is Argylle, also a spy spoof, this one paid for to the tune of nearly $200 million by Apple. It’s loud and garish and insufferably annoying.
Bryce Dallas Howard is Elly Conway, best-selling author of a series of novels describing the exploits of fictional spy Argylle, whose adventures we see enacted by Henry Cavill. Elly’s just released the fourth book in her series, and is on the verge of wrapping up the fifth and final one. But something’s not quite right with the ending. While taking a trip home to visit mom and dad, and maybe get those creative juices flowing, Elly is rescued from a violent kidnapping attempt by alleged spy Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell), who tells her that the stories she’s put to paper are so deadly accurate that a rogue organization of spooks actually thinks they’re predictive, and they’re after her to help track down, you guessed it, a USB drive with some stolen files. Even worse for Elly, she’s a hypochondriac with (allegedly) a comical anxiety problem, carrying her cat in a weird backpack like a security blanket, afraid to fly, and so forth. And soon she’s starting to hallucinate that the character Argylle is real, in place of Aidan, and talking to her.
You might be saying, well that’s ridiculous, and simply makes no sense at all. Which is correct, and would be just fine if the twist that ties everything together wasn’t Vaughn’s most shamelessly stupid ripoff yet. Spoiler alert: it turns out Elly is actually a super spy herself, one who used to be a double agent undercover with the bad guys, and a case of amnesia after an accident has left her with no memory of her past. She’s been brainwashed to think she’s just a meek mousy lady. In other words, it’s essentially the plot of 1996’s vastly superior The Long Kiss Goodnight; there’s even a copycat ice-skating scene replicating one of the centerpiece action sequences in that film, and both movies share a hefty supporting role from Samuel L. Jackson. Making viewers wait an hour for this absurdity to unfold is in and of itself a crime, which has the effect of bloating this monster to an inexcusable 140 minutes.
It’s all wrapped up with a healthy dose of smirking, winky humor. Rockwell tries vainly to jazz things up with his natural charisma, but when he’s stuck doing a shtick about turning stomping on people’s skulls into a dance move, it just sounds like McBain from The Simpsons trying to do standup. There’s an inordinate amount of business offered to Elly’s cat, which usually ends up capping scenes with a bit of speed-ramping CGI slow motion like you might see in a kids’ movie about a recalcitrant computer-generated pet. (Small mercies: at least the cat doesn’t talk.) And everything here also looks like utter green screen garbage — it seems unlikely that a single scene takes place in an actual location, and the endless generic hallways and crummy backdrops are thoroughly unconvincing.
Argylle’s action is equally lifeless (not to mention bloodless). An early sequence on a train actually manages something a bit novel, as Elly watches Aidan take on wave after wave of bad guys, the scene switching back and forth between Rockwell and Cavill as Argylle fighting the would-be assassins. Sure, that’s neat enough in concept, but then there’s Vaughn’s cutting between both actors, which completely disrupts the momentum of the already choppy construction, making the whole thing merely irritating. A climactic sequence in which Elly and Aidan have a lengthy shootout with henchman in a secret base has almost zero sense of movement because the actors aren’t even in a real corridor; it’s entirely digital because of all the goofy-colored CGI gas that’s covering their escape, and then Vaughn goes ahead and turns the whole thing into a cheeky dance sequence — and it’s not even worth getting into all the endless cornball needle drops — complete with the now total cliché of the characters just spinning around firing machine guns while the villains tumble helplessly. It’s enough to make you long for the, relatively speaking, vastly superior tonal and formal work of James Gunn. That Argylle makes excessive use of that new Beatles song “Now and Then,” which was produced with generous assistance from AI, feels representative of the entire project’s stupid waste of money and effort.
DIRECTOR: Matthew Vaughn; CAST: Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Henry Cavill, John Cena, Dua Lipa; DISTRIBUTOR: Universal Studios; IN THEATERS: February 2; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 19 min.