I’d like to put it this way: “Argylle,” an action comedy about a shy spy novelist who gets involved in heavy real-world espionage business, is lighthearted and lighthearted in its chosen tone; But this style is not like that. I can respect the craft if it’s not working for me.
I would like to express it this way, but I can’t. This is not true. I don’t do that Respect the craft. It’s abysmal and deliriously boring, squandering its on-screen talent and turning its hair-raising, recreational carnage into a bland visual mishmash. So there’s nothing crazy or fun about it.
The twists and turns in “Argylle” are the selling point, so let’s give spoiler due respect, which isn’t much. Plot: A lonely man living with his cat in a lakeside house in Colorado, bestselling novelist Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) is finishing her fifth draft of the adventures of the flamboyant, fictional, James Bond-esque superspy known as Argylle.
On the train to visit her parents, with her cat in tow, Elly meets Aiden (Sam Rockwell, who periodically saves the film from itself), a scruffy real-life spy who mutters something about trust, danger, and things about to go bad. Then things go wrong: The train car is full of assassins about to kill, and many more corpses later. “Argylle” screenwriter Jason Fuchs leads the wide-eyed, crazed hero and his apparent ally into bigger and bigger problems.
That’s all there is to the trailer: Rockwell’s character works for a global spy network led by a good man (Samuel L. Jackson) in France. Real-world espionage networks follow Elly’s every printed word; The fictional Argylle adventures have a strange way of foreshadowing what will happen in real life and real death. A rival spy network is run by a bad guy (Bryan Cranston) and there’s a flash drive containing many valuable secrets that everyone is after. Computer technology comes and goes, but flash drives never die; they are only reused for mediocre spy movies.
Director Matthew Vaughn began working with Guy Ritchie on projects such as “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” Ritchie and Vaughn share a common arsenal of tricks (and they really love their weapons): “Matrix”-inspired slow-motion gore; heartlessness disguised as coolness; Fragmented footage that dulls rather than enhances the audience’s relationship with both stars and stuntmen. In other words, these are hacks. They are also quite successful in terms of box office.
As “Argylle” travels the world, from Greece to London to various points across the United States, with some location work in Spain and a establishing shot of Hong Kong, much of its 135 minutes appear as if they were shot in front of a sound stage. Green Screen. But whether or not the film has numbing digital effects, even the “real” stuff doesn’t offer the basic retro pleasures of seeing real actors in real settings. Scenes depicting Elly’s writing show John Cena or Ariana DeBose enjoying a nice morning coffee in Greece being shot in a Jeep by a supermodel superspy. But oddly stuffy. Nearly every interior lit by George Richmond reflects the same, undifferentiated glow no matter what.
Let’s make it easier here. If you liked Vaughn’s “Kingsman” movies, you’ll probably prefer “Argylle,” which is less violent and at least as sadistic, but it got a PG-13 because it’s an old, funny world. Same thing if you liked Vaughn’s song “Kick-Ass.” They all consider the joyful slow-motion death ballets scored in “Argylle” for both new and existing dance numbers as the sole reason for the film’s existence. When the new Vaughn movie isn’t regularly stopping in its tracks for yet another exposition dump, it occasionally introduces a tantalizingly wacky idea. Example: Elly (an impressive figure skater, we are told early on) performs Olympic-level feats of speed and precision on makeshift skates, gliding and spinning as she stabs and slashes dozens of unnamed attackers in a massive chamber filled with crude oil.
A different director — David Leitch of “Deadpool 2” or Edgar Wright of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” — might have had success with the idea. But Vaughn’s sense of humor is straightforward and straightforward, relying on frenetic editing and camera work to get our adrenaline pumping. Part “Romancing the Stone,” part “Manchurian Candidate,” but more in line with creepy algorithmic Netflix streamers like “Red Notice” or “The Gray Man,” “Argylle” leaves its actors in a state of predictive limbo. How much do we have to blink at these things while doing this? Why are we literally winking so much in this movie? Is my energy going right? Is this scenario as bad as it seems? Will it pass?
While Howard offers a slice of humanity as Elly, Rockwell’s wry comedy makes lemonade from the script’s witty lemons. DeBose, while criminally underutilized, has a natural tendency to hold the screen without turning an acting assignment into a modeling session. Speaking of which: Henry Cavill is also in the movie as Argylle’s fantasy version of Elly. It is good. It’s never more than that, most of the time it’s never less, and for that, OK, it’s above average. Everything is relative. And relatively speaking, “Argylle” neither is for me And It’s not effective, stylish filmmaking.
What to Watch?
The latest from Tribune critics on what movies and television you should watch.
“Argylle” — 1 star (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for strong violence and action and some strong language)
Running time: 2:15
How to watch: Premieres in theaters February 1
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.