Critics have called movies such as Red Notice or Heart of Stone fake movies… a charge I never fully agreed with. But then I saw Argylle, a movie that never felt like a real movie. In look, mood, and style, it feels less like a labor of love and more like a labor of labor.
How else do you account for Matthew Vaughn making such an aggressively dull and ugly movie? Like David Yates, Vaughn has made several popular movies but has rarely made a good one. But even then, despite my distaste for the director’s style and sensibilities, his films at least moved with a rhythm and dripped with a style. But with Argylle, there’s none of that.
Nothing is running through Argylle. Far from scenes building from one another, there’s an odd sense of the film deflating with every passing scene. With no mood, tone, or beat, the frames are sterilized and flattened.
Yet, despite spending much of the film wondering if Vaughn had forgotten how to make a movie, little moments of inventiveness threaten to blossom from the mire of the film. These moments where George Richmond’s lens and Vaughn take chances feel playful and harken back to the days of silent film in their expressiveness. During the early action scenes, for example, famed author Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) witnesses a fight and can’t help but imagine her character Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) in place of the actual spy Aidan (Sam Rockwell). Vaughn and Richmond show these moments from Elly’s point of view and even simulate her blinking to transition from Cavill and Rockwell.
Later on, Vaughn and Richmond stage action scenes of poetic lunacy that, despite Richmond’s overlighting every scene and all but making the already pale Bryce Dallas Howard seem ghost-like, exhibit a craftsmanship lacking in the rest of the movie. These moments contain a gonzo style that had the movie bothered to be this fun an hour and a half earlier, I would be writing a very different review.
However, the singular problem of Argylle is not Vaughn and Richmond’s camera but Jason Fuch’s script. Fuch’s script is part of a disturbing trend: all plot and no story. Sometimes, a movie so chock-full of plot and very little story can be delightful; they’re called melodramas and can often be tricky ways for directors to smuggle in stories that are ordinarily considered too taboo.
But Vaughn and Fuchs take a cue from J.J. Abrams and make Argylle into a puzzle instead of a story. Except, the big twist isn’t a twist. But since it’s treated as one, the movie is too busy playing coy instead of exploring the idea proposed by the idea. The notion of self-discovery and a woman realizing she is more than she thinks. Or heck, even playfully poking fun at how modern middle-class life feels like something you’d have to be brainwashed into wanting.
To be clear, I’m not complaining about what I wish the movie was about; I’m saying the movie isn’t about anything, which, with a story like this, is almost impressive. It’s nearly as remarkable as how no one in this movie has chemistry with any other actor they share a screen with. Statistically speaking, how is that possible?
Vaughn is the only director to get the privilege to work with Sofia Boutella multiple times and fumble the bag each and every time. That alone should put him in some kind of director’s jail.
The actors are trotted out in every scene to regurgitate that exposition from the last scene and add more to the pile. Repeat. It never ends.
Vaughn and Richmond seem dedicated to framing every actor in the most unflattering light imaginable. I have rarely seen a cast of this many beautiful people lit and photographed so dismally. I haven’t seen a movie look this lousy outside of a Marvel movie since Suicide Squad. Only instead of everything being too dark, everything is too bright, which, combined with the grating CGI, makes sitting through Argylle all the more painful.
The egregious CGI use is baffling. Not in the sense that it was used but that it looks so bad. From the ugliest CGI cat I hope to ever see to the way, at times, it felt like the actors and the set were filmed on separate continents. Argylle confounds with how arid and empty its frames are, and I haven’t even talked about the numerous scenes in which it is evident that Rockwell isn’t talking to Howard but to a stand-in.
Though it probably doesn’t help that there are three credited editors for Argylle. An editor’s job isn’t simply to cut the film and piece it together but also to be the audience surrogate, to help the director make his vision digestible to the audience. Having three isn’t necessarily a red flag, but it does explain some of the film’s incoherence.
I haven’t mentioned the performances because Vaughn and Fuchs don’t give the immensely talented cast anything to do. Worse, despite the A-list cast you see in the trailers and the ads, most spend very little time on camera. John Cena and Catherine O’Hara are given so little to do that the fact they turn in some delightful moments borders on the miraculous.
It sounds like there aren’t any enjoyable moments in Argylle, and that’s not entirely untrue. There’s a scene between Howard and Rockwell involving a tutorial about how to stomp on someone’s head; that is the kind of sick and morbid thing Vaughn is famous for. Truth be told, Argylle feels so safe, so inoffensive, that it’s hard to believe it’s from the same director who gave us that infamous scene at the end of The Kingsman.
I’d rather a movie be tasteless and filled with rough edges than devoid of any personal taste while it lurches from one overly complicated plot point to the next. To sit through all that and then sit through a post-credits scene hinting at a larger universe? After a movie like Argylle, that’s not an ad for future films; that’s a threat.
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures
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