“ARGYLLE”; or when art unexpectedly imitates real-world events | MOVIE REVIEW

Suspense of an audience’s disbelief is a tricky balancing act. In the scope of a film, the proper tone must be set for viewers to accept any type of craziness a filmmaker will throw at them. In today’s Hollywood action cinema, the ceiling on “over the top” continues to be raised. Sometimes wild and impossibly executed action set pieces work very well (the “John Wick” and “Mission Impossible” series). Others are so excessively cartoonish that it becomes too ridiculous to have any fun (we’re looking at you “Fast and the Furious” franchise!). For a while, Matthew Vaughn’s “Argylle” is a goofy good time, until it drowns in an overindulgence of the ridiculous.

As a director, Matthew Vaughn has proven himself an immense talent. His first film, “Layer Cake,” was a smart and involving British crime thriller. His sophomore effort (the fantasy film “Stardust”) was a surprisingly entertaining picture full of exciting ideas and pure fun. The same can be said about his follow-up, the intoxicatingly vulgar and exciting anti-comic book movie, “Kick Ass”.

With this triple threat, Vaughn assured critics and audiences he was a director whose genre work would be infused with a cleverness that is missing from big budget fare. Then came “X-Men: First Class”, yet another cookie-cutter spoke in the wheel of bland superhero films. The director did nothing to make his entry stand out, causing it to be another forgettable big budget adventure. Immediately after, Vaughn became stuck in the world of “Kingsman”, a harmless but annoyingly exaggerated James Bond-styled trilogy for the younger crowd. Each entry was more outlandish than the last until it was tough to imagine that the skilled director was behind them at all. Whatever switch flipped inside Vaughn’s creative machine has now short-circuited, as “Argylle” (after an enjoyable first hour) is his most outlandishly silly film.

Written by Jason Fuchs (“Pan,” “Wonder Woman”), this is the story of Elly Conway, a reclusive author whose best-selling espionage novels about a secret agent named Argylle somehow predict the real-life intrigue happening between two modern spy organizations. As Elly puts the finishing touches on her fifth book, she becomes the target of a global spy syndicate that wants to discover how she knows events in such detail.

In a somewhat interesting aside, Fuchs’s script intercuts Elly’s real world with the characters in her novels that come alive in her mind. Henry Cavill (seemingly auditioning to be 007 but sporting a silly haircut) and Jon Cena play the characters from the books. Their scenes are amusing and the action antics that ensue within them are forgiven, they exist in a world of fiction.

Good so far, and Bryce Dallas Howard has turned in her most winning performance to date. As Elly Conway, the actress keeps a tight lid on a role that could have lent itself to overacting. Instead, Howard is charming and endears the character to the audience with wide-eyed amazement and a natural sweetness. The work is her best since 2011’s “The Help” and shows Howard as an actress of many layers. Let’s hope filmmakers recognize this and offer her more challenging roles in the future.

Sam Rockwell is fun to watch as “Aiden”, a spy sent to protect Elly from the bevy of baddies coming after her. It’s nice to see the serious actor lend himself to having a good time, and his chemistry with Howard is fun to watch.

As Elly and Aiden (and Elly’s beloved cat “Alfie”) escape danger, their getaways become more and more exaggerated and find Vaughn walking a fine line of losing control, but managing to keep it together for as long as he can. It is somewhere around the film’s halfway point where the director’s grip begins to loosen, as an over-reliance on CGI tests the good will of the viewer. A romantic dance number/shootout followed by a certain character “skating” on an oil-covered floor while dispensing with the bad guys were groan-inducing and began the picture’s rapid decline.

Amongst the action, “Argylle” is jam-packed with supporting characters. Bryan Cranston is fine as the murderous head of the evil spy organization and the great Catherine O’Hara does well as Elly’s mother. Dua Lipa, Ariana DeBose, Sofia Boutella, and Samuel L. Jackson could have stayed home. The screenplay makes their characters important to Elly’s unwilling adventures, but gives them nothing interesting to do during their short time on screen.

Regarding the action scenes, it is time for modern films to hang up the ironic use of pop songs during moments like this. Every time guns start blazing, Vaughn throws a song over the action that is meant to be humorously sarcastic; doing it so many times that the gimmick becomes overwhelming.

The film’s screenplay has many reveals that prevent a review from digging too deeply. While plot twists in today’s films are usually eye-rolling, the ones found within this film’s screenplay are clever and speak to the inventiveness that went into creating the plot.

Unfortunately, Vaughn and Fuchs run out of creative rope and the film becomes the very thing it tries to avoid, ending up a maddening spillage of special effects and action scenes that become too dopey to enjoy.

The beginning of a planned trilogy, “Argylle” isn’t a bad film. The first hour is fun and Matthew Vaughn concentrates enough on building Elly and Aiden’s characters that it helps all the goofiness go down easier. Sadly, due to a final hour and a half that rockets into the stratosphere of stupidity, the picture becomes too long and too much.

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