Matthew Vaughn’s new spy satire has promising romantic premise. Shame it drops the ball on the action.
Having a trademark franchise can be a mixed blessing for a director. On the one hand, directors are given the chance to establish trademarks that create a sense of who they are as auteurs. But it can also pigeon-hole you into doing your one thing, making it more difficult when you want to step aside that trademark. Some directors create a brand and genre unto themselves, offering a specific promise with their name alone. The Tarrantinos or Verhoevens of the world provide distinctive visions that promise something any time they helm a new project.
Matthew Vaughn has not precisely established himself as a knowable brand to quite the same degree. But he certainly does have a franchise that is a distinctive piece unto itself. With Kingsmen, an adaptation with regular collaborator Mark Millar, Vaughn established a style of lad’s mag Bondian spy nonsense that succeeds at stylish action, tongue-in-cheek comedy and a swagger that has set itself a distinctive space. His newest outing, Argylle, promises to be more of the same: a spy parody with a killer premise that seems to play to Vaughn’s strengths. But the biggest surprise in the film is not any particular plot twist so much as its genre of choice.
Because Argylle isn’t a “boys will be boys” R-rated spy spectacle; it is an adventuring romantic comedy, in the ilk of Romancing the Stone. This genre exploration, as well as playing at PG-13 volume rather than at his typical R, presents Vaughn a challenge to stretch himself outside his usual confines as a director. But in the process of translation, Vaughn’s fans might be surprised to see his typical strengths don’t survive the shift in genre full intact.
The top level pitch of Argylle certainly promises a lot. Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), a lonely and neurotic spy novelist, is on the cusp of releasing the fifth entry in her highly popular series of novels starring the titular spy. But as she struggles to figure out how to wrap up her book, she makes a startling discovery: the events of the novels she wrote are less fictional than she realized. In fact, they reflect real geo-political intrigue, including a mysterious evil agency that would stop at nothing to read her newest novel.
She learns all this from Aidan(Sam Rockwell), an actual spy who drags her into the world of gun-swinging espionage. The dynamic is quickly established: Aidan drags Elly around, pulling her through the dangerous world he actually inhabits and she only previously wrote about. As twists and secrets are revealed, the world is unfurled and Elly discovers the truth about her prognosticating writing abilities.
Argylle’s marketing has promised grand reveals and secrets, so don’t expect any spoilers here. But suffice to say, the true identity of Agent Argylle is actually a central turning point of the film rather than a grand climatic reveal. The film is full of twists, some more absurd than others, but they are all done with a certain knowing wink that this is what movies like this are built upon anyway.
The biggest surprise however is how much of the movie hinges on the romance between Elly and Aidan. Yes this is still a big spy action thriller, but it is almost more about their odd couple dynamic. Rockwell is a perfect fit for an unconventional romantic leading man, a little scruffy and unpredictable, while Howard’s bubbling nervousness plays off his supreme confidence. But it’s when moments of tenderness bubble up between them that the chemistry pops, and the pair make for a very winning on-screen combination that plays with both their acting personas.
In addition to Howard and Rockwell, there is an all-star cast who all seem to be enjoying the high premise antics to be had. Henry Cavill plays the fictionalized Argylle, first in imagined spy scenarios from Elly’s novels, then later in visions she has of the action unfolding before her. Bryan Cranston lends his brand of snarling histrionics to play the big bad, mercilessly trying to track down Elly and learn her secrets. And old Vaughn partner Samuel L. Jackson shows up as…well, that’d be telling.
Perhaps Vaughn’s dedication to the romance angle reveals why his directorial edge seems edged down in other portions of the film. Whatever opinions one may have about Vaughn, he has always been a dynamic director of action, with his trademark long-take sequences that twirl and dance around a space. And while Argylle has plenty of dancing (you don’t cast Sam Rockwell and not have him dancing), his typical strengths are sadly lacking here. Action sequences are choppier, with quick cuts and oddly placed close-ups. The CGI components feel cheap as well, giving the action sequences a lackluster quality that disappoints given Vaughn’s previous pedigree. Save for one late sequence, which does mirror the heights of his pulse-pounding Kingsmen fight scenes in both violence and creativity, the actual spy business feel perfunctory and as if it were a hassle meant to be plowed through.
Unfortunately, this imbalance creates a final product that is an interesting experiment in meta-commentary that collapses under some of its own weight. It is probably telling that this is the first Vaughn film he didn’t at least partially write, instead working off of a screenplay by Jason Fuchs. There are sparks of interesting romantic filmmaking that Vaughn flirts with. But the parts that you would take for granted from a film under his leadership fall on their face, feeling disjointed and bored. Maybe Vaughn needs to step away from the spy genre, but a final stinger suggests bigger plans for Agent Argylle are on the horizon. One can only hope that Vaughn’s trademark zip for action comes with him next time.