Review: ‘Argylle,’ starring Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Catherine O’Hara, Dua Lipa Ariana DeBose, John Cena and Samuel L. Jackson

January 31, 2024

by Carla Hay

Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell in “Argylle” (Photo by Peter Mountain/Universal Pictures/Apple Original Films)

“Argylle”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Europe, and Asia, the action film “Argylle” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos, Asians and one multiracial person) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A famous American book author, who has written a series of novels about a British spy named Argylle, goes on the run with a real spy, who has told her that she’s the target of a criminal spy group.

Culture Audience: “Argylle” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Matthew Vaughn, and action movies that have more style than substance.

Bryan Cranston in “Argylle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures/Apple Original Films)

“Argylle” is an incoherent, bloated mess filled with stupid plot twists, awful dialogue, and a gimmicky cat that looks fake for most of the movie. Henry Cavill is not the main star, even though he gets top billing. “Argylle” is mostly Sam Rockwell acting smug and Bryce Dallas Howard acting terrified. The trailers for “Argylle” are grossly misleading, in terms of certain characters being misrepresented as being more important and having more screen time than what’s actually in the movie.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Jason Fuchs, “Argylle” is yet another big-budget, globe-trotting spy movie with a flimsy plot that’s just an excuse for filmmakers to overspend on visual effects, lavish locations, and salaries for celebrity stunt casting for cast members who are barely in the movie. “Argylle” has so much idiocy and the worst spy adventure clichés, it’s like the filmmakers took the trash ideas from other spy movies and threw them into the junkpile that is “Argylle.” And with an overly long total running time of 139 minutes (which drags the movie down even further into irritating depths), “Argylle” is like garbage with stench that lingers and gets worse the longer it sticks around.

The central characters of “Argylle” are reclusive novelist Elly Conway (played by Howard) and sarcastic spy Aidan Wild (played by Rockwell), who go on the run from a criminal group of spies called The Division. The opening scenes from “Argylle” are mostly revealed in the movie’s trailers. Elly has a best-selling book series about a dashing and handsome British spy named Argylle (played by Cavill), who is obviously a ripoff of James Bond. Elly has an active imagination where she sometimes envisions Argylle and her other book characters coming to life in front of her.

Argylle’s spy colleagues are his muscular best friend/right-hand man Wyatt (played by John Cena), who does a lot of the work requiring the most physical strength; androgynous field tech Keira (played by Ariana DeBose), an expert strategist who’s often needed to get Argylle and Wyatt out of trouble; and Fowler (played by Richard E. Grant), a senior member of Argylle’s Washington, D.C.-based spy group. Argylle’s chief nemesis is a spy named Lagrange (played by Dua Lipa), who uses seduction and charm to get what she wants. All of these characters from Elly’s “Argylle” novels are not in the movie as much as viewers might think, based on the way the “Argylle” movie was marketed. Lipa’s screen time is barely 10 minutes, with her entire character arc show already shown in the “Argylle” trailers. Grant gets even less screen time.

Elly has just finished her fifth “Argylle” book, which ends on a cliffhanger. (It has something to do with Argylle going to London and whether or not he gets a secret file.) Elly’s meddling and opinionated mother Ruth (played by Catherine O’Hara) reads Elly’s manuscripts and is quick to give criticism. Ruth says that the book should not end on a cliffhanger and tells Elly that the book needs a better, more definitive ending.

Elly, who is very insecure and sensitive, has these doubts swirling in her head when she goes to a personal appearance at a bookstore in Denver, where she answers questions from the audience. She denies speculation that she is a spy in real life, just like spy novelists Ian Fleming or John le Carré actually had experiences working in espionage. When a young man in the audience asks Elly out on a date, she lies and says she already has a date.

Elly’s “date” is really spending time at home with her beloved cat Alfie, a gray-and-white Scottish Fold, who is her constant companion. (In real life, the cat that plays Alfie is named Chip, and he is owned by Claudia Vaughn, Matthew Vaughn’s wife, who is better known by her previous name and profession: supermodel Claudia Schiffer.) Elly is a stereotypical “cat lady” bachelorette, who would rather spend time with her cat than with other people. Elly lives in seclusion in a remote house in an unnamed city in the United States.

Elly has a fear of flying in planes, so she takes other transportation for long-distance trips. On a train ride home after her book appearance, a scruffy-looking and talkative stranger sits in the seat facing her. Elly doesn’t really want him to sit near her, but he ignores her attempt to get him to sit somewhere else. He happens to be reading Elly’s latest “Argylle” book, which he says he’s enjoying. It isn’t long before the stranger, who later introduces himself as Aidan Wild (played by Rockwell), tells Elly that he has noticed that she is the famous author Elly Conway. She tries to deny it, but Aidan isn’t fooled.

As already shown in the “Argylle” trailer, Aidan knew who Elly was all along, because he had been tracking her. And he isn’t the only one who knows that Elly is on the train. About 10 spies from The Division are also on the train. They are on a mission to kidnap Elly, but Aidan fights them all off, with Elly intermittently hallucinating that Aidan is really Argylle during the entire melee. Aidan and Elly then escape from the train by a parachute that Aidan happens to have.

Aidan tells Elly that he’s a spy and that her latest “Argylle” book has strangely predicted real-life spy activities. He tells her about The Division, which Aidan says wants to abduct Elly to force her to write the next chapter of the book so The Division can know in advance what will happen in real life. (Yes, this movie’s plot is as moronic as it sounds.) The fugitive duo’s travels take them to Greece, Colorado, London, France, Hong Kong, and the Arabian Peninsula. Most of “Argylle” was filmed in the United Kingdom.

The Division (which sells spy secrets to the highest bidders) is led by a conniving director named Mr. Ritter (played by Bryan Cranston), who comes across more like a grouchy professor instead of the head of a ruthless crime syndicate. Ritter has a shotgun named Clementine, which he says he inherited from his mother. As soon as Ritter shows ths shotgun and talks about the sentimental value that it has for him, you just know he’s going to use this gun in one of the showdown fight scenes.

Ritter’s chief henchman is Carlos Valdez (played by Tomás Paredes), who is completely generic. Carlos was undercover as an audience member at Elly’s Denver speaking appearance. He was the person who asked her if she’s a real spy. The rest of The Division thugs and fighters are mostly nameless and have no real personalities or storylines.

There’s a poorly written subplot about Aidan looking for an elusive young computer hacker named Bakunin (played by Stanley Morgan), who betrayed Aidan because Aidan overpaid Bakunin for data that Bakunin failed to deliver. Bakunin has now mysteriously disappeared. This subplot is nearly forgotten for a great deal of the movie, until it’s shoved in as an afterthought during the movie’s end credits, which hint that there could be an “Argylle” sequel or spinoff. (Please don’t put more of this “Argylle” nonsense into the world.)

Much of the so-called “comedy” in “Argylle” comes from Elly insisting on bringing Alfie with her everywhere she goes. The cat is kept in Elly’s argyle-pattered, backpack-styled carrying case, which has holes on the side so the cat can breathe. It should come as no surprise that Aidan is allergic to cats. The cat is obviously a computer-generated image (CGI) in most of its scenes. This phoniness takes away a lot of the impact that these comedic scenes would’ve had if the cat looked real.

The Beatles’ “Now and Then” is played several times throughout the movie (the song’s significance to certain characters is eventually revealed), and it’s played often enough that it’s clear that a sizeable chunk of the movie’s budget was spent to license the song. Far superior to the movie’s story is the “Argylle” soundtrack, including the end-credits dance song “Electric Energy,” performed by DeBose, Boy George and Nile Rodgers. The “Argylle” music from composer Lorne Balfe invigorates the movie’s over-the-top action scenes but can’t save the film when the movie drags on with frustrating banality during the dialogue scenes, especially during the long final stretch.

In the production notes for “Argylle,” director Matthew Vaughn (who is also one of the movie’s producers) says one of the main influences for “Argylle” is the 1984 action film “Romancing the Stone,” starring Michael Douglas as a cocky mercenary, and Kathleen Turner as an uptight romance novelist, who go on a misadventure when she enlists him to help her find her kidnapped sister in Colombia. “Argylle” tries desperately and fails to have the winning formula of “Romancing the Stone” and other entertaining movies where two people of the opposite sex are thrown together under dangerous circumstances, as they both argue and pretend that they’re not attracted to each other. Rockwell and Howard (as Aidan and Elly) seem to be doing their best, but they just don’t have the right chemistry together.

Elly should’ve been called Nervous Nellie, because that’s how she is for most of this repetitive movie. Elly constantly has to be rescued and reassured by Aidan, who is supposed to look like an average guy but has almost superhuman combat skills. Aidan and Elly get into tiresome and boring arguments because Aidan wants Elly to take risks that she’s afraid to take. Elly is portrayed as an unfortunate “damsel in distress” stereotype that “Argylle” unconvincingly tries to correct in the last third of the movie, when “Argylle” really falls off the rails into an irredeemable wasteland of cinematic muck.

And the question must be asked: Why is Samuel L. Jackson in this movie? Is he in some kind of personal contest to see how many sidekick characters he can play in big-budget films where he’s usually a loudmouth, know-it-all “elder statesman,” who gets sidelined because the main stars get most of the action? That’s essentially what Jackson is in “Argylle,” where he plays Alfred Solomon, a former deputy director of the CIA, who now lives in exile at a vineyard in France.

Predictably, Elly and Aidan end up visiting Alfred at this vineyard, which has a control room with giant video monitors that can see a lot of the action going on in the movie. It’s just a way to have scenes of Alfred reacting to whatever shenanigans that Elly and Aidan are up to in their globetrotting, as these mismatched runaways try to evade getting captured by The Division. Sofia Boutella has a small and thankless role as Saba Al-Badr, a mysterious person described as “The Keeper of Secrets,” who lives in a palace on the Arabian Peninsula.

“Argylle” could have been much more entertaining if it had a story that was engaging, instead of trying too hard to look “daring” with garishly filmed fight scenes that look distractingly artificial. (A fight scene involving ice skating on an oil-covered floor is an example of this egregiousness.) Elly’s fantasy visions about the world of Argylle are awkwardly placed in the movie. The acting performances are adequate, but the co-star chemistry is very forced and unconvincing. Just like the CGI cat in the movie, “Argylle” is as fake and fluffy as it looks, but the end result is not as cute.

Universal Pictures will release “Argylle” in U.S. cinemas on February 2, 2024.

Review: ‘The King’s Man,’ starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Harris Dickinson and Djimon Hounsou

December 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Harris Dickinson and Ralph Fiennes in “The King’s Man” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The King’s Man”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United Kingdom and Russia from 1902 to the late 1910s, the action film “The King’s Man” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: Orlando Oxford (a British former military man also known as the Duke of Oxford) and some allies, including his son Conrad, battle villains led by evil Russian monk Grigori Rasputin.

Culture Audience: “The King’s Man” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ralph Fiennes, the “Kingsman” movies and poorly written action flicks.

Ralph Fiennes, Djimon Hounsou, Harris Dickinson and Gemma Arterton in “The King’s Man” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The King’s Man” is a charmless prequel that’s messier than the unkempt beard and head of hair on Rasputin, the movie’s flashiest villain. Even with a talented cast, this origin story to the “Kingsman” movies gets bogged down in a jumbled plot and cringeworthy dialogue. And for an action movie, much of “The King’s Man” is downright dull.

“The King’s Man” is the precursor story of 2015’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and 2017’s inferior sequel “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” which are all about a secret spy agency led by Brits. Matthew Vaughn directed and co-wrote all three movies, which are all based on the comic book series “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbon.

Audiences don’t have to see “Kingsman: The Secret Service” or “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” to understand “The King’s Man.” In fact, seeing “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” will just prove how “The King’s Man” is such a witless disappointment in comparison. If you only care about explosions and fight scenes that are too choreographed to be believable, then you might find “The King’s Man” entertaining. But if you care about having an interesting storyline and engaging characters along with thrilling action, then “The King’s Man” will leave you bored or annoyed.

Vaughn and Jane Goldman co-wrote “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” For “The King’s Man” screenplay, Vaughn teamed up with Karl Gajdusek, which might explain why the quality of “The King’s Man” is worse than the movies that Vaughn wrote with Goldman. Gajdusek’s other movie screenplay credits includes stinkers such as 2011’s “Trespass” and 2020’s “The Last Days of American Crime.” The screenplay for “The King’s Man” is definitely the worst part of the movie.

“The King’s Man” tries to disguise how weak the plot is by tangling it up with more subplots and by introducing useless characters. “The King’s Man” also tries to look smarter than it really is by throwing in real-life historical figures into the mix. But all of these gimmicks cannot hide the gross stupidity of so many aspects of “The King’s Man,” which is nothing but a bloated over-indulgence in period set pieces and big-budget stunts that are just smoke and mirrors for a lackluster story.

The basic story, which takes place from 1902 to the late 1910s, is that wealthy nobleman Orlando Oxford (played by Ralph Fiennes), also known as the Duke of Oxford, is a military-officer-turned-pacifist, who finds himself caught up in a lot of violence and political machinations leading up to World War I. To make matters worse for Orlando, his young adult son Conrad (played by Harris Dickinson) wants to enlist as a soldier to fight during the war, much to Orlando’s objections.

The movie opens during the Boer War in 1902, when Orlando (who’s representing the Red Cross) is visiting a concentration camp in South Africa with other military officials. Traveling with him in the car are Orlando’s wife Emily Oxford (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) and Conrad at about 8 or 9 years old (played by Alexander Shaw), who wait in the car while Orlando goes to meet with the people in charge of the concentration camp.

The movie is so badly written, it never explains why Orlando brought his family into this dangerous situation. During the ride to this concentration camp, Emily tells Conrad about the legendary Knights of the Round Table. She also talks about how privileged people must share their power and that the knights’ round table equals equality.

When you visit a concentration camp and you bring your spouse and underage child with you, don’t expect good things to happen. And sure enough, there’s a shootout that results in Emily getting shot and killed in front of Orlando and Conrad. Orlando’s loyal bodyguard Shola (played by Djimon Hounsou) stabs and kills the shooter, but it’s too late to save Emily. Emily’s dying words to Orlando are: “Protect our son. Promise he’ll never see war again.”

Two other military men were also caught up in this tragic shootout: Lord Kitchener (played by Charles Dance) and his right-hand man Maximillian Morton (played by Matthew Goode), who is a trusted soldier. Lord Kitchener gets shot but not killed. Unlike Orlando, Lord Kitchener does not become a pacifist after this incident. (The Lord Kitchener character is based on the real-life Herbert Kitchener, the British Army officer who later became the U.K.’s secretary of state for war.)

The movie then fast-forwards about 12 years later. Orlando has left the military and is an over-protective father to Conrad, who has led a very sheltered life. As a young man, Conrad is getting restless. Conrad wants to experience life outside of the confines of his family’s lavish estate, but Orlando is reluctant to let Conad experience the real world, and Orlando constantly fears for Conrad’s safety. Conrad has gotten an invitation from his cousin Felix Yusupov (played by Aaron Vodovoz) to visit Felix in Russia, but Orlando won’t allow Conrad to go.

The United Kingdom is on the verge of getting involved in World War I, and Orlando is firm on being an outspoken pacificist. When he takes Conrad to the Kingsman Tailor Shop on London’s Savile Row to get fitted for a new suit, Orlando tells Conrad that he wants the both of them to lead very different lives from their ancestors. Orlando describes their forebears as “tough and ruthless” brutes, who conquered and pillaged their way to power.

Orlando and Conrad have a sassy housekeeper named Polly Watkins (played by Gemma Arterton), who says things to Orlando such as: “I’ll play by your rules, if you play by mine.” “The King’s Man” is yet another action movie where the people who get top billing are several men and one token woman. And the movie has the sexist trope that this token female character can’t be around these men unless she’s a love interest of one of the men.

Therefore, you know where this is going when “The King’s Man” makes it obvious that Polly’s snappy remarks to Orlando are just her way of flirting with him and testing how he’ll react to her. It takes a while for Orlando to catch on to Polly’s romantic interest in him. And there’s a formulaic soap opera subplot when this would-be romance hits a very big snag.

Of course, there would be no “King’s Man” movie if Orlando and Conrad led a peaceful and tranquil life. Orlando, Conrad, Shola and Polly get caught up in a series of events where they become a four-person combat team fighting off various villains, many of whom are real-life historical figures.

These rogues have meetings around a table in a dark, dungeon-type of room, where Russian monk Grigori Rasputin (played by Rhys Ifans) leads the discussions. But there’s a mysterious mastermind who’s seen in the shadows during these meetings. And this person is the one who’s really calling the shots. (The movie eventually reveals who this mastermind is.) Also part of this rogue’s gallery are Dutch spy Mata Hari (played by Valerie Pachner) and Austrian con artist Erik Jan Hanussen (played by Daniel Brühl).

One of the movie’s few highlights is in how it pokes fun at real-life rivalries of royal cousins King George of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia. All three roles are played by Tom Hollander, who does a very good job at balancing comedy and drama in his performances. However, the movie’s attempts at having high-minded “history lessons” are just drowned in an avalanche of silly conversations and convoluted plot twists that aren’t very clever.

The movie also goes off on a weird and unnecessary tangent when it fixates on Rasputin’s reputation of being a hedonistic libertine. At first, Rasputin’s insults are mild. When he first meets Orlando and Conrad, he asks them, based on how Orlando and Conrad are dressed: “Are you waiters or Englishmen?”

Later, Rasputin ramps up the sex talk by saying, “I only make a decision when my belly is full and my balls are empty.” And then he says to Orlando, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think your son is trying to fuck me.” Orlando replies, “Knowing your reputation, I’d think you’re trying to fuck him.”

And the homoerotic innuendos continue. After Orlando gets a leg wound, Rasputin says to him, “Let me lick your wounds.” Rasputin then flicks his tongue on Orlando’s leg wound in a sexually suggestive manner. The filmmakers go overboard in making their point that Rasputin is supposed to be some kind of sexual predator.

But really, it’s all just a badly written and awkward-looking attempt at making audiences laugh at the idea that a straight guy like Orlando is supposed to be uncomfortable at male sexuality that isn’t heterosexual. And why is it that the only possibly queer character in this movie has to be a villain? It’s really just homophobic filmmaking that’s incredibly tone-deaf and outdated, much like many other aspects of his dumb film.

“The King’s Man” fails in much of its comedy, but the dramatic scenes aren’t much better. That leaves the action to possibly salvage the film, but the movie falls short in that area too. There are obvious stunt doubles and distracting CGI effects in too many of the action scenes.

The movie’s production design and costume design are actually two things that make “The King’s Man” enjoyable to look at on a superficial level. However, the movie’s tone veers from having slapstick-type goofy comedy to trying to be an intense and serious spy thriller. Ultimately, “The King’s Man” is a movie prequel that makes the “Kingsman” franchise look stuck in an unimaginative rut that’s in desperate need of fresh and new ideas.

20th Century Studios released “The King’s Man” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2021.

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