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Argylle: an ungainly but commendable attempt at a (partially) subversive spy-thriller

Despite providing luminous and bombastic escapist action, alongside respectable performances from it’s stars, Argylle’s lack of narrative substance holds it back from being a truly venerable modern-day espionage hit. 

Courtesy of IMDb

By Kieran Maxted, Fourth Year, Philosophy 

Engendered through the lens of producer turned director, Matthew Vaughan, most notoriously renowned for his Kingsman series and precursory flick Layer Cake (2006), his latest neo-espionage romp - Argylle – underwhelms as its lofty conceptual ambitions unsuccessfully sugar-coat what is merely another trite Hollywood action submission. Argylle, not only falls short of the highs of the Kingsman series, but barely ‘cat scratches’ the surface of their success. 

Subverting his known propensities, Vaughan opts for a more amiable tone than in previous outings. The ‘cold open’ of the film introduces a conventionally handsome, piercingly featured, suavely adorned James Bond-inspired spy, Argylle. Henry Cavill is cast appropriately as the archetypal agent in what could be perceived as a nod to a hypothetical universe in which Cavill succeeded in claiming the Bond role ahead of Daniel Craig in 2006’s Casino Royale. Although, surfacing the premise of the film around a generic spy caper rich in cringe-inducing yet smoothly delivered one-liners, flirtatious dance numbers and physics-defying car chases, the narrative flow culminated before really getting started. What is subsequently revealed is that this is the substance of protagonist Ellie Conway’s most recent addition to her ‘Argylle’ novel series.  

Courtesy of IMDb

As the trailers tease, there is no deficiency in star-studded accessories. Bryce Dallas-Howard stars as Conway; an innocent, yet erudite novelist (and ostensible prognosticator) finding herself wrapped up amid a real-life espionage quandary. Consequently, she becomes acquainted with the ever-infectious, quick-witted chops of Sam Rockwell’s character, Aiden. Dallas-Howard, returning to acting following recent ‘behind the camera’ Star Wars success, emphasised her multi-faceted creative skill set, offering a subtle and endearing performance. Rockwell is also inevitably infectious; his laissez-fair manner and loquacious dynamism aligns perfectly with Vaughan’s intended manifestation of the character. However, at this point compliments cease. The star-studded splendour of the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Bryan Cranston, John Cena, Dua Lipa, Ariana Debose and Catherine O’Hara fail to have the desired impact; their insubstantial characters being merely vessels for the convenience of plot fulfilment, or, a more cynical view may suggest, marketing attractions. 

Courtesy of IMDb

Despite the replete and glossy cast, their best charismatic efforts cannot compensate for the mildly stagnant dialogue and narrative which the plot entails. From a writing standpoint, Vaughan and respective screenwriter, Jason Fuchs, seem to over-exert what is a nuanced, but bluntly effective, narrative premise. I seldom found myself enticed by the plot or engrossed within the established world. Part of this alienation results from artificial and inconsistent visuals; the over-use of green screen becoming readily apparent. To further my experienced disorientation, the VFX quality is vastly underwhelming; surprising considering the lucrative bestowment of the distributing conglomerate Apple TV+.

What Argylle lacks in narrative blandness, it some-what compensates in dazzling, energetic and invigorating action. This works in tandem with the score, conducted by Lorne Balfe, which is very reminiscent of the exuberant scores of Henry Jackman, Matthew Margeson, and Dominic Lewis from the three aforementioned Kingsman releases. The alchemy and interplay of the score, in addition to the intensity-filled action sequence edits, did leave for moments of ecstasy. However, they were merely that, momentary and fleeting, and at their worst they could also flirt with the possibility of being considered saccharine. 

Courtesy of IMDb

Despite Vaughan’s best intentions to construct a neo-spy thriller, evocative of the works of the sub-genres 1980s ‘Golden-Era’, Aryglle, in not failing to dynamically entertain, does fail, in respect of cinematic substance and nuance, to establish itself as a valuable (and non-derivative) addition to the cine-file zeitgeist. Whilst not getting top marks for originality and/or cinematic and thematic prestige, if you have just short of two and a half hours to spare for jubilant, escapist action, this movie may just be for you.

What did you think of Argylle?