When I look back at the career of director Matthew Vaughn, I see so many films that tick my personal escapist entertainment boxes. “Kick-Ass”, the first “Kingsman”, “X-Men First Class”, “Stardust”! These are highly stylized, irreverent and expertly choreographed action plots that keep their tongue in their cheek right up until the very end. Every time I see one of them, I think “this guy really gets me”. Which is why I’ve been excited about “Argylle”, the twisty caper flick that everyone hopes will be a return to form for Vaughn after the mixed reception of the third Kingsman installment in 2021.
“Argylle”, out this weekend in theaters, sports an A-list cast and a playful premise. Ellie is a spy thriller writer (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) who gets drawn into a real-life espionage scenario when her books appear to predict the maneuverings of an international agency. The first act of the movie comically juxtaposes her inner life with her outer, as her subconscious constantly inserts her fictional leading man Agent Argylle into the harrowing circumstances she experiences in the company of Aiden, an actual man of mystery who claims to be her protector and guide.
For a while, Henry Cavill and Sam Rockwell perfectly embody the yin and yang of Ellie’s perceptions, and they are just the tip of a star-power iceberg that includes Catherine O’Hara,
Bryan Cranston, John Cena, Arianna DuBose, Samuel L. Jackson and luxury cameos by the likes of Sofia Boutella, Dua Lipa and Richard E. Grant. A group like that should be able to elevate any material and, frankly, “Argylle” needs the help. Screenwriter Jason Fuchs did not provide Vaughn with the most coherent script of his career, and the project often stumbles under the weight of its expositions and justifications.
Critics, because we see a lot of movies, regularly complain about how long many of them are. Setting aside the obvious (and valid) “oh, you poor babies” response to this revelation, I can tell you that, right or wrong, we believe any film that goes more than 2 hours really needs to earn it. Some ideas work perfectly well at a luxurious pace. Others require a certain leanness to stick their landings, and “Argylle” is among the latter. At 2 hours 20 minutes, it’s too padded. Almost every scene and set piece would have been better with a third less duration and the tonal confusion of the middle and final acts would have benefited from a tighter, more concentrated delivery.
Don’t get me wrong, “Argylle” has a lot of laughs and plenty of the clever turns of fate we expect from the caper genre. More than plenty of the twists, perhaps, but Vaughn is still Vaughn
when it matters. There’s an absolutely amazing dance scene near the end that recalls the best moments of his idiosyncratic filmography (remember the head-popping fireworks ballet at the end of the original “Kingsman”?). It’s a welcome payoff at a point in the journey where some viewers might be questioning if it was worth it to get there. The fact that this sequence is followed closely by a similar extended gag cheapens it a bit, but not enough to make me disregard it. The real Matthew Vaughn needed to stand up, and I was glad when he finally did.
“Argylle” works best when it appears to understand the difference between funny and silly. Funny can go on forever. Silly, not so much. Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell have good chemistry, but too much is asked of them. The script has too many words and their collaborative rhythm is too often strained by scenes that go on longer than they should. At the risk of sounding like a spoiled reviewer brat, I can’t help but feel that this film would be a lot better if it clocked in at 90 minutes instead of 140. Less of everything, might just have fixed everything.