"Do I have to remind you what’s at stake here?" barks Bryan Cranston’s villain Ritter at his hapless minions in Matthew Vaughn’s latest. Perhaps a few such reminders might have helped focus the Kingsman director’s fitfully lively but – ultimately – fatally loose espionage meta-satire.
Wobbling unevenly between self-awareness and self-satisfaction, Argylle is never as fast or funny as it thinks it is: a reminder that even frivolously quippy capers can benefit from discipline.
Supposedly adapted from a book by Elly Conway, Jason Fuchs’ script focuses on Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), writer of a novel series about super-spy Argylle. The action cuts between the ridiculous exploits of the fictional Argylle (Henry Cavill) and Elly’s creative pains, then blurs the dividing line increasingly until she’s swept away on a real mission by spy Aidan (Sam Rockwell). Her writer’s imagination is needed, it turns out, to help locate a digital whatnot before Ritter nabs it first.
Despite the race-against-time set-up, Vaughn rarely generates the necessary velocity. The opening stretch’s Bond parody and riffs on duplicitous identities are drawn out and labored. It’s left to a pleasingly spiky Catherine O’Hara and an ever-likable Howard to engage initially; later, Howard has fun flexing her range.
While Rockwell’s wise-cracking presence helps lift the mood, his fight scenes are either too overcooked or cheesy for impact. Cavill is reduced to looking suave while being blown through the air backward, his unruffled hair a visual parallel for oddly flat action sequences that neither shake nor stir. And he’s not the only wasted talent here: Ariana DeBose, Samuel L Jackson, and Chip the cat are all variably underused.
Some predictable mid-film twists add self-conscious fun, though it’s hard to shake the feeling that films like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent maxed the meta-genre mischief with more invention and elegance. The struggle to integrate the demands of action and knowing comedy weighs heavy as the film crawls to its second half, with a languid trip to a French vineyard stalling the pace at precisely the wrong moment.
When Vaughn does get his skates on (literally), he over-compensates for such shortcomings. Lumbering beyond the two-hour mark, Argylle’s excess of overwrought climactic set-pieces make The Return of the King’s endings look sparing. One clumsily staged ruckus involving a multicolored smokescreen speaks volumes: even when the air clears, you’re left with the impression of a film lost in a gaudy fog of self-indulgence.
Argylle is in UK cinemas from February 1 and in US theaters from February 2.
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