|A popular spy novelist is dragged into the real world of espionage and danger when it turns out her books have a prophetic ability to predict the future.
|2 Hours 19 Minutes
|February 2, 2024
|Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, John Cena, Samuel Jackson
Director Matthew Vaughn has had quite a decade. Despite major rumors he might end up directing a Superman movie or taking on larger projects, his entire body of work has been consumed by the Kingsmen franchise, with a fourth entry seemingly currently being discussed. It has been strange given how much his early career was marked by bold original films and adaptions like Layer Cake, Stardust, and Kick-Ass, as well as producing several of Guy Ritchie’s early films like Snatch and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Violence/Scary Images: PG-13-rated action with gunfights, stabbing, a character teaching another character how to skull crush her enemies, and multiple killings
Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout including f*** and s***
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink alcohol casually throughout
Sexual Content: Several female characters where low-cut clothing, and there is some brief double entendre
Spiritual Content: Some crude language including a character yelling God’s name in vain, but no religious content
Other Negative Content: Frequent killing and characters frequently lying
Positive Content: Themes of love, truth, and coming to terms with your identity
Matthew Vaughn is a fascinating filmmaker and one I’ve been following for the entirety of my film writing career. His early films like Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service were released during the formative years of my life in high school and when I was studying sound design for film in college. The past decade has thus been bizarre, as he’s followed this up with two mediocre Kingsmen sequels and nothing else, only to announce this past week he’s doing a musical collaboration with Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land).
Put simply, he is an artist who is at his best when he is allowed to make original movies, even if they’re adaptations. Kick-Ass and Kingsmen are sharp, edgy, brutal, funny, and wildly original films that lampoon the superhero and gentlemen spy genres beautifully, and their sequels are unanimously awful. Even with that being true, it has been hard to guess how his newest film Argylle would hold up after such a strange decade.
It hasn’t helped Argylle’s reputation that the trailers have made it look abysmal. As many online film writers have observed, it has had one of the most annoying film trailers in recent memory. The film-within-a-film, meta-commentary on authorship, the implied mystery of Agent Argylle’s true secret identity, and Vaughn’s overlit and ugly over-lit production design made the film look sickeningly fake and unbearable.
Much to my surprise, the film itself is quite enjoyable. I’m not sure it’s great at the level of his previous films, and there are certainly signs in the film that his edginess has calmed down a bit, but Argylle is far better than the trailers have made it look and represents some of Vaughn’s best filmmaking in the past few years, with some wonderfully creative action and dense plotting.
The film follows the life of Elly Conway, a successful spy novelist who has just finished writing her fifth novel and is preparing to send it off to the editor. After her first draft is negatively received, she finds herself drawn into a web of espionage when it turns out two rivaling spy factions believe her writing skills are prophetic and capable of solving a mystery that could undo a real-life rogue spy organization, potentially revealing her original character Agent Argylle has a real-life counterpart.
The immediate parody the film is working from is that of the gentleman spy genre, as seen in movies like James Bond and Kingsmen. Conway is intended as a kind of Vince Flynn or Brad Thor-style spy writer. However, this mostly extends to the film-within-the-film segments, with Henry Cavill and John Cena playing the roles of classic spy heroes. As the film zooms out into the real-world setting, it takes on a different more grounded take on the espionage genre, drawing on films like North by Northwest, Long Kiss Goodnight, and Conspiracy Theory to tell an unfolding and intensifying thriller story that gradually becomes more ambitious as the lines between fiction and reality blur to the point of disappearing.
Most of the footage and reveals from the back half of the film are largely absent from the film’s promotional material, as the nature of the reveals is intense and completely rewrites the narrative as they unfold through the final scenes. What starts rather hollow and laid back quickly escalates into some of the largest action setpieces of Vaughn’s career. This is arguably one of the densest screenplays he’s ever adapted, given how much every line of dialog in the early scenes serves as a setup for a major payoff later on.
At its heart, though, Argylle is a fascinating reflection on the nature of the relationship between art and artist. Conway’s journey throughout the film is intense and revelatory, taking a rather gentle and shy character and forcing her through the wringer to come to greater revelations about her life and those of the people around her. It asks the question of where inspiration comes from and how much control artists truly have over the ideas that poor from our heads.
This is not to say Argylle is particularly intelligent or original. It is a highly derivative film and most of its over-produced CGI-heavy visual style is on par with the filmmaking in Vaughn’s prior films. However, it’s a great deal more fun and introcate by blockbuster standards than a casual viewer might expect going in.
It remains to be seen how Argylle will improve upon multiple viewings or if it will even be memorable in the coming months. As I’ve said, Vaughn’s skill as a filmmaker is inconsistent. This newest work is certainly among his most ambitious and represents some of his best recent filmmaking, with some brilliantly creative action scenes and a surprisingly tender love story at its core. It is even somewhat less edgy and more mature than previous works, with less overtly offensive humor or intense violence. But only time will tell how this fits into his overall body of work.
+ Great Performances
+ Fun Action Scenes
+ Densely Plotted Script
- Derivative Story and Ideas
- Gross Looking Production Design and CGI
The Bottom Line
Argylle is a film that is likely to be controversial, but this reviewer found it to be more of a positive step in Matthew Vaughn's career than the bloated blockbuster it could have been.