With Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kick-Ass, English filmmaker Matthew Vaughn has twice shaken up stiff action subgenres with explosive energy and irreverence. These movies not only delivered gonzo violence, cascades of cursing, and bawdy sex jokes but also launched sequels. With the action-comedy Argylle, Vaughn seems to be at it again. But this time, he’s surrendered the hard-R rating that’s long served him well, instead presenting audiences with a PG-13 spy tale that regrettably pulls its punches.
It’s not just a matter of a high body count with virtually no blood (a trick Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy pulled as well). It’s that without the R-rating, Vaughn is constrained to do something tamer. And for him, that means making a movie for women, where danger, romance, and hilarious hijinks — well, not so much collide as bump into each other awkwardly. See, Vaughn has no idea what women want, turning in a tedious espionage adventure that is too much in all the wrong ways.
Argylle is not Romancing the Stone.
Credit: Universal Pictures
The premise of Argylle has echoes of the 1984 comedy Romancing the Stone, in which Kathleen Turner stars as a romance novelist named Joan who gets swept up in an adventure that seems ripped from her book’s pages. (See also the Sandra Bullock romp The Lost City). Along the way, Joan fights and then falls in love with a rugged rogue named Jack (Michael Douglas). Argylle screenwriter Jason Fuchs contorts this setup slightly: Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Elly Conway, a heralded author of spy novels who finds herself caught up in a web of intrigue. Along the way, Elly becomes entangled with a real spy named Aiden (Sam Rockwell) who promises survival — and maybe romance.
However, the archetypes here have shifted. Elly is no sharp-tongued Kathleen Turner heroine, and Rockwell doesn’t have the swagger of ’80s Douglas. He’s less rugged and more world-weary. Playing a spy who is less Bond and more beach bum, Rockwell frequently looks like he’s sleepwalking or desperately bored, while Howard is often reduced to wide-eyed alarm and tiresome whining as an author plunged into a world she’s only experienced behind her laptop. The pair don’t have any sexual chemistry, so when the plot inevitably throws Elly and Aiden together into a sultry dance number, something crucial is missing.
Argylle lacks spark.
Credit: Universal Pictures
As demanded of spy movies, Vaughn’s latest will take audiences around the globe to exotic and gorgeous locations, wreaking carnage along the way. But in the wake of truly gonzo action movies like the Mission: Impossible and Fast and Furious franchises, Vaughn’s opening gambit of spy schtick — as seen in the trailer — feels a pale imitation, even if it is bolstered by big stars like Henry Cavill, Dua Lipa, and John Cena. You see, Argylle not only shows us Elly’s actual adventure with scruffy spy Aiden, but also the imagined adventures of her titular fictional spy: the debonair Agent Argylle, played by the Witcher star, wearing the worst haircut we’ve seen him in yet — a strangely square buzz cut that looks like he pissed off his barber.
It should be fun to watch the rumpled world of Rockwell’s real-world spy intercut with Elly’s glossier Argylle facing similar version of events as they unfold, with Cavill and Rockwell enacting the very same stunts in their different styles. But the bit gets old fast, in part because the Argylle character is woefully one-note. He’s all swagger, one-liners, and winks, whereas Rockwell’s Aiden seems bored and beleaguered, whether he’s taking down assassins or delivering a tutorial about how to crush a human skull. It’s a superficial (though solid) contrast, but its impact dulls in repetition.
As Elly gets into the action, there’s promise for a new turn. But frankly, what should be Argylle‘s most bonkers bits feel woefully underwhelming. Blame the lack of chemistry between its leads. Blame the fact that Vaughn rips off Birds of Prey, from a colorful smoke-bombed raid to cheeky dance-inspired action. Blame a soundtrack that favors ’70s disco and slow love songs to score fight scenes, seemingly aiming for Guardians of the Galaxy or Kingsmen but actually undercutting their stakes and energy. But most of all, blame that Vaughn has no concept of what women want in action heroines.
Argylle fails at Kingsman: BUT FOR GIRLS.
Credit: Universal Pictures
The premise of an everywoman getting swept into espionage, intrigue, and romance is a trusted formula for thrilling female audiences. However, Elly is less everywoman and more infantilized; she freaks out at any spy-level action, her only friend is her mom (an underused Catherine O’Hara), and her only loves are her writing and her cat, Alfie. Mostly confined to Elly’s backpack, the Scottish Fold fur baby is basically a Disney princess sidekick, cute and cuddly and — on rare occasions — relevant to the plot. Perhaps this is by design, with the PG-13 rating aiming to appeal to the many young women who contributed to making Barbie a blockbuster. But Barbie was more than a dazzling fantasy… and Argylle isn’t even dazzling.
The fashion fantasy that Barbie, The Lost City, and even the Tom Cruise movies offer women is woefully missed here. The fancy costumes in Argylle feel cartoonish more than glamorous. And in the real world, when Elly strives to live up to her fantasy on a mission, the result is an evening dress that fits like a dream but with a color that feels juvenile, along with an inexplicable haircut. She seems uncomfortable in it, as if she’s in costume rather than living her dream. So, when she begins pulling off big action moves, it’s missing the thrill of Harley Quinn cutting loose in cool clothes that are made to move — and kick ass — in.
The only time Argylle comes close to working is when it embraces the absurdities of spies dancing. Specifically, the “whirly bird” is superb. Here, one dancer hoists his partner into the air, her legs outstretched over his shoulders, her crotch at his face, and they spin, gracefully, defying physics and slyly simulating cunnilingus. This is as close as Argylle gets to a sex joke. And it’s also the closest it gets to realizing its own potential to be silly and sexy. Elsewhere, dance is bonded to violence, but it doesn’t stick the landing the way this running gag does.