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Movie Review: Campy to a Fault: a review of ‘Argylle’

If you’re looking for something brainless and something light and fluffy, then ‘Argylle’ can be a fun time in the cinema.

Matthew Vaughn, director of films like ‘Kick-Ass’ and ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ and its sequel, infuses his crazy brand of bombastic action (with heavy inflections of comedy) on ‘Argylle,’ a spy film that is filled with narrative twists and CGI-infested action scenes. ‘Argylle’ has the same tonal quality of Vaughn’s earlier work like ‘Kick-Ass’ and The Kingsman films (‘Kingsman: The Secret Service,’ ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ and ‘The King’s Man’) but the director dials up the hyper-reality by a notch and pushes the “fun factor” of the movie to an uncomfortable level.

The story of this film centers around Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), a successful spy novelist and introvert, who is suddenly the target of a real covert organization because her books coincidentally align with real events in the world of spies. Coming to her rescue is a rogue agent, Aidan (Sam Rockwell) who, like every character in the film, is way more than he seems.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell in ARGYLLE, directed by Matthew Vaughn

The reason that I make the claim that ‘Argylle’ takes the “fun factor” of its filmmaking to an uncomfortable level is that the film, despite its crazy and unrealistic tone, lacks the same grounding elements that Vaughn’s earlier work has that allows us to feel a part of the world, or at least, interested in it. In ‘Kick-Ass’ and ‘Kingsman,’ the main characters there are presented as underdogs. In the first film, the crime-fighting Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a comic geek/nerd and unpopular guy in school who suddenly gains the courage to don a costume and fight crime after an accident gives him the capacity to not feel pain. In the latter film, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a diamond in the rough, a street-smart kid who society has forgotten and who manages to rise the ranks against elitist kids for a place amongst the Kingsmen. In these films, no matter how crazy or off-the-wall Vaughn gets, we are always grounded by the origin stories of its characters.

In ‘Argylle,’ it’s hard to connect with Howard’s Elly Conway. She’s a successful writer, who lives a reclusive life in a lake house in Colorado. Her house is huge and being an introvert and a recluse is not a thing to be pitied. As her whole life is upended by either being killed or kidnapped by this spy organization, she resists it and tries to escape it and I don’t feel sad or scared for her. In the hyper-real world of ‘Argylle,’ the reaction seems unbefitting for the tone of the film. In a point of comparison, Sandra Bullock played a similar character in a movie with a similar plot line in ‘The Lost City of Z.’ When her character is kidnapped so that an evil corporate boss can use her expertise in archeology to uncover a priceless jewel, Bullock’s character is unwilling but throws herself into the absurdity of the film’s plot. 

Howard’s Conway seems antithesis to the genre and is acting in a way that seems befitting a film with a more grounded approach to its reality. In this movie, the world is so out-of-the-box and divorced from a grounded reality. The bullets are endless, the physicality of all the characters are such that they can survive the shockwave of explosions and other such hijinks and distortions of the laws of physics that are typical of films in the genre of an action/comedy. 


In fact, even the acting of ‘Argylle’ feels disjointed and distant. Bryce Dallas Howard is an excellent actress (see her work in the ‘Black Mirror’ episode ‘Nose Dive’) and Sam Rockwell deservedly won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.’ These two actors have shown great range and understand tone. But in this movie, they seem to be just throwing themselves into the craziness of Matthew Vaughn’s world and it feels like they are having more fun than they are truly building a character.

Vaughn loves his CGI and huge set pieces to keep his film loud and big and excessive. There’s quite a lot of campiness to what he tries to do here in ‘Argylle’ and the essayist and cultural theorist Susan Sontag had said, in her classic essay ‘Notes on Camp’ that camp is best when it is unintentional. When one actively strives for camp, the results are never that satisfying. This feels exactly where ‘Argylle’ goes wrong. They aren’t serious enough about the craziness of this tonal exercise.

Unlike, say, ‘Kick-Ass’ or ‘Kingsman,’ where the actors were serious enough in the world that they belonged to make the characters at least feel genuine and true, Howard and Rockwell and the rest of the cast like Henry Cavill and Bryan Cranston did not really believe in the world that they created. They were actively striving for camp, winking, and nudging with the audience every step of the way and trying to look cool while having fun that it came at the expense of the film. Sure, there’s a lot that could put a smile on your face but it doesn’t help you really get into the story.

And since the film is heavily dependent on the effect all its twists have with its audience, it doesn’t hit as hard as it should when each new revelation starts popping out of the woodwork on each scene.

If you’re looking for something brainless and something light and fluffy, then ‘Argylle’ can be a fun time in the cinema. It has two wickedly large set pieces (one involving bright-colored smoke bombs and contemporary dance and another involving a lethal skating sequence) that are just a complete visual treat and so off-the-wall that you can’t help but smile. But other than that, the film doesn’t quite pack the punch it hopes to have. It’s having so much fun that they forgot to take themselves seriously enough so that we would too.

My Rating:

Argylle is now showing. Check screening times and buy tickets here.

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