Review by Daniel Lima
“Who is Agent Argylle?” It was the artificially manufactured question on everyone’s lips as we all came under the spell of the ubiquitous ad campaign of Argylle. Is it Taylor Swift? Mayhaps it’s the cat in the trailer? Perchance the illustrious Warren Beatty has been coaxed out of retirement? That the reveal is far less exciting than even the least fanciful speculation is unsurprising. What is surprising is how utterly smug, self-absorbed, inept, lazy, and agonizing this movie is — at least, unless you’ve seen director Matthew Vaughn’s other work.
Bryce Dallas Howard plays a successful spy fiction author, addled with writer’s block as she attempts to complete the next novel in her Argylle series. Taking a train ride to her parent’s house, she meets an actual secret agent who reveals that everything in her novels is true, the rogue intelligence agency is real, and they want to use her prophetic artistic instincts for their nefarious purposes. Now thrust into a life she had only ever imagined, Howard must overcome her mental roadblock to save the world.
At least, one would assume. What exactly the goal of this evil organization is is never made clear.
The premise of an ordinary person forced into the high-stakes world of international espionage is a ripe conceit for an action-comedy. It’s already been the premise of countless action comedies. Matthew Vaughn’s own commercially successful (but creatively and morally bankrupt) Kingsman franchise comes within spitting distance of these waters. In creating Argylle, however, writer Jason Fuchs seems to be under the impression he’s the first person to have ever thought of the idea, and so blunders his way through the script, vigorously grabbing at all the lowest-hanging fruit he comes across.
It should go without saying that this movie is deeply unfunny. Vaughn’s sense of humor has never been well-developed, and that is reflected in both the hack jokes and the way he attempts to sell it as a director. Fuchs’s script is constantly mugging for the audience, taking tired and worn-out material like “lonely woman loves her cat too much” and “man who hates cat is rude to the cat,” playing it entirely straight, then acknowledging how tired and worn-out the material is as if that passes for wit. It’s the post-ironic, self-referential style that has become de facto for all lighthearted blockbusters today, and it is no less aggravating here. The ensemble does an admirable job trying to sell this garbage, but they are only human.
Worse still, however, is the narrative structure. Like all other espionage films, this is a globetrotting affair full of MacGuffins, villains, double-crosses, and twists. Unsurprisingly, it all amounts to naught, both because so little time is spent establishing the stakes of this world and because all the jokes meant to make these characters likable fall flat. By the time the third wild twist arrives, as obviously telegraphed as all of the comedy, it’s impossible for it to land with any weight. If anything, most of these twists undermine any dramatic complications the film flirts with, eliminating any sense of friction and reducing what could have been at least an airy romp to a tedious, predictable slog. That this experience is somehow stretched over almost two and a half hours is all the more excruciating.
As bad as the script is, one might expect that Vaughn’s penchant for energetic set pieces and visual dynamism might give the film some worth, at least as a vehicle for action scenes. Unfortunately, it seems that without the likes of action director Brad Allen for him to defer to, all of Vaughn’s worst instincts are indulged. Most of the fights are annoyingly edited, cut up, and lacking any sense of momentum (albeit in service of a narrative thread, but one that adds nothing to the action or the story). The biggest set pieces rely on truly horrible CGI that further removes any sense of actual danger or physicality from what should be the most crowd-pleasing moments of the film. That they indulge in limp comedy themselves (a shootout with incongruous musical cues... how original) further robs them of any impact. It’s enough to leave anyone praying for another mirthless riff session or exposition dump.
Who is Argylle for? It can’t be for some who has ever seen a movie that dares to toy with spy genre conventions because there is no novelty to be found. Nor can it be for someone who wants to laugh or be thrilled, for there is nothing funny or exciting at any point in the movie. As annoying, taxing, juvenile, and nauseatingly full of itself as it is, this film should only be experienced by IRS agents conducting an audit on the $200 million it cost to bring this dud to life.
Aryglle arrives in theaters February 2.