Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) is in uncharted territory as he enters Argyle. The British writer, producer, and director has spent years deftly navigating Hollywood, avoiding franchise misses like X-Men: The Last Stand and while circling back five years later and to deliver one of the best character driven genre films with X-Men First Class and its 1960s setting. Vaughn has a near flawless recording of outings as a director, everything from the film that landed Daniel Craig James Bond (the delicious Layer Cake) to the family-friendly romp which brought us De Niro as a charmingly closeted pirate (Stardust).

It was 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle which first proved the director was indeed mortal, offering a sharp decline in the wit and fun of the franchise’s first film. Elton John’s campy fight sequence aside, Julianne Moore and robot attack dogs were a poor substitute for the inspired work of Samuel L. Jackson as Richmond Valentine (not to mention that mind-blowing church brawl).

Following the less than stellar reviews for the sequel, Vaughn shifted his sights to a franchise prequel (soft reboot) titled, The King’s Man. The film, set in World War I, felt like a safe move that would follow in the footsteps of how the 1960s setting that reinvigorated Fox’s X-Men franchise with 2011’s X-Men First Class.

Ultimately, The King’s Man proved to be the worst entry in the franchise and seemingly put the franchise to bed (the cringe-worthy post credits scene that introduced a young Adolph Hitler to the villain roster).

Now, Vaughn is eyeing a comeback with Argylle, featuring his most impressive cast to date. Vaughn puts the film on the shoulders of Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays best-selling spy novelist Elly Conway.

In her novel, her lead character is Argylle (Henry Cavill) and in a reading we see Argylle face off with LaGrange (Dua Lipa) with supporting characters of Wyatt (John Cena) and Keira (Ariana DeBose) in tow.

In the real world, Conway’s life isn’t so invigorated… to say the least. Conway balances her time between book store events, writing her latest Argylle novel, and video chatting with the always fantastic Catherine O’Hara who plays her mother, Ruth.

Currently, Conway is traveling with her pet cat to see her mother via trail. On her trip, she’s stopped by Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell) who tells Conway that he’s a real spy and that everything she’s written in her five novels has come to pass, triggering different spy agencies to take notice. Specifically, a nefarious individual, Mr. Ritter (Bryan Cranston), from of “The Division.”

There’s a teams of assassins and spies coming for her, and Aidan must protect her as Conway attempts to recall key details that could ultimately safe her life and the free world.

Argylle is predictable with many of its twists, albeit occasionally confusing in its plotting, and its clear this is meant to be a silly universe where little matters and the stakes feel incredibly low. When thinking of Vaughn’s previous work, there is heavy investment and emotional connection to Taron Edgerton’s Eggsy (Kingsman) or Michael Fassbender’s Magneto (X-Men First Class).

This is a generic distillation of spy thrillers and lacks the style of Vaughn’s previous work. At the close of the film, Rockwell’s Adian and Howard’s Conway can do just about anything because they’re superheros in this narrative of automatic self-actualization.

Many of the locations and production design leave scenes with a sense of missing something artistry. From empty dance clubs to empty halls and streets. Everything is too pristine, too sleek, and too empty and CGI filled. This carries over into the disappointing visual aesthetic, as Vaughn’s signature style feels dampened by CGI additions of many sequences, adding to the unreality rather than building out this minimalist world.

Having the protagonist mix reality and fantasy with confusing execution and editing has generally left a bad taste in audiences’ mouths. Having Elly hallucinate Agent Argylle in place of a real secret agent is fine, as we can contrast from her idealized version of a super spy, her James Bond, versus the actual grunts struggling to win the day.

There are a couple problems with this execution though and firstly that the “reality” isn’t that far removed from the fantasy. This is still a world where Rockwell’s spy is able to commit amazing acts of dexterity and martial arts and balletic violence flying around rooms. The difference isn’t that fantastic when it’s already a hyper-stylized action world that is a trademark of Vaughn’s action films.

The bigger issue is just how confusing it all plays out visually because we’re seeing Elly’s perspective and in rapid blinks Cavill will turn into Rockwell and vice versa. It makes for a jarring sequence that doesn’t fully capitalize on the comic potential while keeping the audience distant from fully engaging with the charactersa. This happens throughout the first half of the movie and severely hampers the action scenes from being accessible.

Vaughn and screenwriter Jason Fuchs miss the mark in this February release, which is often reserved for summer blockbuster that didn’t quite click with audiences in the numerous test screenings. We can only hope Vaughn reteams with collaborator Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men First Class) on the next outing.

Letter Grade: C-

About The Author

Founder, Awards Editor

Byron Burton is the Awards Editor and Chief Critic at Awards Focus and a National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award winning journalist for his work at The Hollywood Reporter.

Byron is a voting member of the Television Academy, Critics Choice Association, and the Society of Composers & Lyricists (the SCL) for his work on Marvel's X-Men Apocalypse (2016). Working as a journalist and moderator, Byron hosts Emmy and Oscar panels for the major studios, featuring their Below The Line and Above The Line nominees (in partnership with their respective guilds).

Moderating highlights include Ingle Dodd's "Behind the Slate" Screening Series and their "Spotlight Live" event at the American Legion in Hollywood. Byron covered the six person panel for Universal's "NOPE" as well as panels for Hulu's "Pam & Tommy Lee" and "Welcome to Chippendales" and HBO Max's "Barry" and "Euphoria."

For songwriters and composers, Byron is a frequent moderator for panels with the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) as well as The ArcLight's Hitting the High Note Oscar series.

Byron's panels range from FX's Fargo to Netflix's The Crown, The Queen's Gambit, The Witcher & Bridgerton; HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, Hacks, Succession, Insecure, & Lovecraft Country; Amazon Studios' The Legend of Vox Machina, Wild Cat, & Annette; and Apple TV+s Ted Lasso, Bad Sisters, and 5 Days at Memorial.

In February of 2020, Byron organized and hosted the Aiding Australia Initiative; launched to assist in the restoration and rehabilitation of Australia's wildlife (an estimated 3 billion animals killed or maimed and a landmass the size of Syria decimated).

Participating talent for Aiding Australia includes Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton, Jeremy Renner, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Josh Brolin, Bryan Cranston, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, JK Simmons, Tobey Maguire, Alfred Molina, James Franco, Danny Elfman, Tim Burton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Tim Allen, Colin Hay, Drew Struzan, and Michael Rosenbaum.

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