I’d like to put it this way: “Argylle,” an action comedy about a timid spy novelist who gets mixed up in heavy-duty real-world espionage, is zingy and rollicking in its chosen style, and while that style doesn’t work for me, I can respect the craft.
I’d like to put it that way but I can’t. It’s not true. I don’t respect the craft. It’s lousy, and a frantic bore, squandering its on-screen talent and making bland visual hash of its preening, recreational slaughter. So there’s no zingy or rollicking about it.
The twists in “Argylle” are the selling point, so let’s respect the spoilers with all due respect, which isn’t much. Premise: A loner living with her cat in a lakeside home somewhere in Colorado, bestselling novelist Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) is finishing up her fifth manuscript in the adventures of her dashing, fictional, James Bond-ian superspy known as Argylle.
On board a train to visit her parents, with cat in tow, Elly meets a scruffy real-life spy, Aiden (Sam Rockwell, periodically saving the movie from itself), who mutters something about trust, danger and what’s about to go down. Then it goes down: The train car is full of assassins out to kill, and many corpses later “Argylle” screenwriter Jason Fuchs whisks his wide-eyed, freaked-out protagonist and her apparent ally into more and larger problems.
This much is in the trailer: Rockwell’s character works for one global network of spies headed up by a nice guy in France (Samuel L. Jackson). The real-world espionage networks follow Elly’s every printed word; her fictional Argylle adventures have a strange way of foretelling what’s about to happen in real life, and real death. A rival spy network is run by a mean guy (Bryan Cranston), and there’s a flash drive containing many valuable secrets everybody’s after. Computer tech comes and goes, but flash drives never die — they just get repurposed for mediocre spy movies.
Director Matthew Vaughn came up working with Guy Ritchie on things like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” Ritchie and Vaughn share a common arsenal (and they do love their weaponry) of gimmicks: “Matrix”-inspired slow-motion brutality; heartlessness disguised as cool; fractured imagery that deadens rather than heightens the audience’s relationship to both stars and stunt performers. They’re hacks, in other words. They’re also hugely successful in box office terms.
As “Argylle” globe-trots from Greece to London to various points in the U.S., with some location work in Spain and an establishing shot of Hong Kong, a great deal of the 135 minutes looks as if it were made in front of a soundstage green screen. But with or without the film’s numbing digital effects, even the “real” stuff doesn’t deliver the basic retro pleasures of seeing real actors in real settings. In scenes depicting what Elly’s writing, there’s John Cena in Greece, relishing a nice morning cup of coffee, or Ariana DeBose getting shot up in a Jeep by a supermodel superspy. But it’s all strangely airless. Nearly every interior lit by George Richmond casts the same undifferentiated glow, no matter what’s happening.
Let’s make it easy here. If you enjoyed Vaughn’s “Kingsman” movies, you’ll probably go for “Argylle,” which is scarcely less violent and at least as glibly sadistic, but it got a PG-13 because it’s a funny old world. If you liked Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass,” same deal. They all treat the merry slow-mo death ballets, scored in “Argylle” to dance tracks both new and existing, as the sole reasons for the movie’s existence. When it isn’t stopping dead in its tracks, regularly, for another exposition dump, the new Vaughn film sets up the occasional, promisingly insane idea. Example: Elly (an impressive ice skater, we’re told early on) performs Olympic-level feats of speed and precision on makeshift skates in a massive room flooded with crude oil, gliding and spinning while stabbing and slicing dozens of anonymous assailants.
A different director — David Leitch of “Deadpool 2,” or Edgar Wright of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” — might’ve scored with that idea. But Vaughn’s sense of humor is blunt, flat and dependent on zazzed-up editing and camerawork to get our adrenaline going. Part “Romancing the Stone,” part “Manchurian Candidate” but more in line with eerily algorithmic Netflix streamers such as “Red Notice” or “The Grey Man,” “Argylle” strands its actors in a limbo of guesswork. How much are we supposed to wink at this stuff as we’re performing it? Why are we literally winking so much in this movie? Is my energy coming off right? Is this script as lame as it seems? Will it get by?
As Elly, Howard provides a thread of humanity, while Rockwell’s wry comic topspin makes lemonade out of the script’s wisecracking lemons. DeBose, while criminally underused, has a natural affinity for holding the screen without turning an acting assignment into a modeling session. Speaking of which: Henry Cavill’s in it, too as Elly’s fantasy version of Argylle. He’s OK. He’s never more than that, and often less and for him, OK is better than average. Everything’s relative. And relatively speaking, “Argylle” is both not for me and it’s not effective, stylish filmmaking.
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“Argylle” — 1 star (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for strong violence and action and some strong language)
Running time: 2:15
How to watch: Premieres in theaters Feb. 1
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.