The HoloFiles

REVIEW: Argylle

By George Bate & Josh Bate

Argylle review

Matthew Vaughn has established an understated reputation as a director in the last two decades. The English director emerged on the scene with the crime comedy Layer Cake in 2004 and has since crafted a signature style of fast-paced action comedies. With strands of Guy Ritchie and Edgar Wright’s influence, Vaughn has found great success with this signature style as evidenced by a trio of energetic and witty films – Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and Kingsman: The Secret Service. Now, after helming three films in the espionage Kingsman franchise, Vaughn crafts another spy film – Argylle.

Argylle stars Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World, The Village) as Elly Conway, an introverted novelist who gained fame writing a series of popular spy novels featuring the fictional secret agent Argylle. Elly’s peaceful life suddenly becomes disrupted, however, when the plot of one of her books happens to have dangerous parallels to the operations of a real life criminal organization. With the help of undercover spy Aidan (played by Sam Rockwell), Elly and her beloved cat Alfie try to avoid this deadly criminal organization and get to the bottom of a globe-trotting mystery.

Argylle review

The premise of Argylle is the sort of meta, creative take that has the potential to provide an adrenaline shot to the largely stagnated genre of spy movies. The idea of an author who writes a book with unintentional references to a genuine sinister crime syndicate and soon becomes a target of this syndicate not only is an inventive take for an espionage film, but also serves as a humorous tale of caution / ‘what if’ scenario for authors. It’s a shame then that Argylle falls desperately short of the potential afforded by its unique premise.

After beginning with a prolonged and dull CGI-heavy action sequence involving Henry Cavill and Dua Lipa that is meant to be a scene out of Elly Conway’s novel, Argylle shifts to the real world and quickly plummets its lead character Elly into the depths of a real life espionage thriller. A premise like Argylle’s, while stellar in its potential, warrants time and careful consideration to set up. Too little exposition creates holes in the narrative, while too much exposition will bog the film down in a convoluted manner. Unfortunately, Vaughn’s film starts unevenly with simultaneously and paradoxically too much poor exposition and too little digestible exposition, meaning it never truly finds its footing. Vaughn propels the film forward at such a brisk pace that, at times, it is easy to overlook the plot’s messiness and get lost in the action or adventure of a given scene. However, as the runtime progresses, the plot-heavy film becomes jumbled and more difficult to follow to such an extent that it can’t be saved by mediocre action sequences and flat one-liners.

Argylle review

What indeed ends up salvaging the messiness of Argylle’s plot are a number of ambitious and significant plot twists that change the entire course of the film. These twists don’t do enough to make things less convoluted (the opposite is true, as the twists add more complexity to the story), but they are undoubtedly unexpected and inject a decidedly different energy into the film. It’s ultimately a case of a film having some excellent plot twists that executionally fall short due to the messiness and mediocracy of the film that came before them. 

Starring in this entertaining (and messy) spy adventure is Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays the author Elly Conway at the heart of this story. Howard proves to be a refreshing lead, one that plays the ‘normal people thrown into a crazy situation’ type very well. For much of the film, Howard is accompanied by Sam Rockwell’s Aidan, a CIA agent who is trying to protect Howard’s Conway from the deadly criminal organization. Rockwell doesn’t do anything particularly novel here, but his characteristic charm is undeniably effective. From Galaxy Quest to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Rockwell always seems to make things more engaging even when he isn’t doing anything we haven’t seen before.

Less success, however, is found with other members of Argylle’s ensemble cast. Henry Cavill plays the Agent Argylle from Conway’s books, who, after featuring in the film’s opening action sequence, appears sporadically throughout as visions/hallucinations of Howard’s Conway character. Cavill brings an awkward screen presence to the role, which is made all the more off-putting by the fact that his character’s appearances are limited to odd hallucinogenic scatterings throughout the film. Entire fight sequences unfold with Rockwell’s character being swapped out for Cavill’s characters, sequences that are meant to be energetic and humorous but ultimately come across as awkward and unnecessary. 

Within the world of Conway’s books alongside Cavill’s Argylle is John Cena, who plays Argylle’s assistant Wyatt. Cena is serviceable in the role, delivering his trademark seriousness-meets-humor, but doesn’t do anything to elevate proceedings in ways he has done in past performances. Dua Lipa, meanwhile, follows her acting debut in Barbie as a villainous character within the world of Conway’s books. The singer-turned-actress delivers a performance worthy of a Bond girl, while fellow singer/actress Ariana DeBose is completely wasted in a meaningless minor role.

Two acting heavyweights – Bryan Cranston and Samuel L. Jackson – also play fairly significant roles in Argylle. Cranston plays the film’s lead villain, the head of the underground crime syndicate named Ritter, while Jackson plays an ally of Rockwell’s character introduced later in the film. Cranston and Jackson have already proven their status as acting royalty is thoroughly deserved, but deliver frustratingly standard performances here. As Cranston plays the same stock bad guy he has been countless times before, Jackson delivers the same Nick Fury-style performance we’ve come to expect from him in most of his recent projects.

Argylle review

As Argylle’s ambitions shine through the impressiveness of its ensemble cast, director Vaughn also tries to engage audiences with a series of ‘crowd-pleasing’ moments that are sprinkled in between the film’s many CGI-heavy action sequences. These crowd-pleasing moments, whether it be in the shape of a character defeating enemies while skating on a surface of oil or of two characters engaging in a choreographed dance routine during a shootout, almost always fail to pack the intended punch. Vaughn is clearly going for the impact of the iconic church sequence in Kingsman: The Secret Service, but instead crafts large set pieces that fall flat. 

Despite this, the film’s flat attempts at crowd-pleasing moments do not take away from what is ultimately an entertaining film to watch. Although definitely overstaying its welcome with a runtime of 139 minutes, Argylle possesses a kind of unrelenting energy that makes it difficult to take your eyes off the screen. Things may not always make sense and jokes or big sequences may not always have their intended effect, and yet the globetrotting, Bond-esque adventure has plenty of decent action sequences, a fast pace, and a light-hearted tone that make Argylle far from unwatchable. 

VERDICT: 5.5/10

Argylle sees director Matthew Vaughn attempt another light-hearted action comedy after finding immense success with Kick-Ass and Kingsman. Sporting an intriguing premise and a solid lead performance from Bryce Dallas Howard, Vaughn’s latest theatrical venture has all the ingredients to make a great film, but, unfortunately, it just doesn’t all come together. Messy plotting from the get-go means Argylle never finds its narrative footing and stumbles its way from one jumbled sequence to the next. Some significant and unexpected plot twists add flavor to the proceedings, although not enough to overcome such disjointed storytelling. Large sequences intended to evoke the crowd-pleasing moment that Vaughn achieved with the church scene in Kingsman continually fall flat, while greater success is found with the film’s array of less sizable action set pieces. Despite Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell solidly leading the film, awkward acting from Henry Cavill, a woefully underused Ariana DeBose, and frustratingly standard performances from Bryan Cranston and Samuel L. Jackson mean an exciting ensemble goes to waste. Nonetheless, Argylle has redeeming qualities with some fun action sequences and an energetic and light-hearted tone, which, coupled with some unexpected plot twists, mean this latest spy mission isn’t a total failure.

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