'Argylle' serves up screwball romantic spy comedy
In the new film "Argylle" (opening Feb. 2), a writer discovers that her spy novels are mirroring real life.
The film opens with an outlandish set piece in which Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill looking like he's doing an over-the-top audition to play James Bond) must capture a sexy spy. If it all feels trope-laden and artificial, that's because it is. The scene is actually being played out from the latest spy novel by Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard). But then Elly ends up meeting a real spy, Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell), who informs her that her novels have been predicting real events with such accuracy that a secret organization now wants to kill her.
"Argylle" is a cartoon version of real spies from the man who has masterminded the ridiculous action of "The Kingsman" films. Director Matthew Vaughn started his career with darker violence, in films like "Layer Cake" and "Kick-Ass." So what possessed him to make this wacky action-comedy-romance?
"Basically, I was with my daughters and we watched 'Romancing the Stone' during lockdown," Vaughn recalled. "And they turned around to me and said, 'Why is nobody making movies like this anymore? And would you make a movie like this for us?'"
How could a father refuse? So "Argylle" was born.
As in "Romancing the Stone," a chain reaction of outlandish action is set in motion when a mousy novelist encounters a real world adventure and is thrown into an unexpected relationship with a man she initially dislikes. But antagonism is the basis for most screwball comedies.
"The world was quite bleak during lockdown, obviously. And sadly, the world's gotten bleaker," Vaughn added. "So I thought, you know what? It's time to make a ray of sunshine in a dark, dark world and make a movie that is pure escapism, is fun and can be enjoyed by everybody in a room together, and could be a family movie, could be a date movie Just give people their money's worth and a reason to watch a story in a communal cinema where you get to have the ups and the downs, and the whoops and the cheers, and the gasps and the confusion and the looking at each other, did that really happen? And just go on a roller coaster ride."
That rollercoaster involves a cat, a couple of secret organizations, double crosses, red herrings, plot twists, skating on an oil slick, and a showdown that’s equal parts Matrix and MGM musical.
"I love action," Vaughn said. "And there's different types of action. You can either go the gritty, real action or you can go hyper-stylized. And with this movie, I thought, I want to go hyper-stylized, but I want to make it fun. And I'd like to challenge doing what I call more feminine action, something more beautiful and like a ballet."
In fact, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers seem the inspiration for a choreographed fight involving brightly colored smoke bombs as Elly and Aidan take on a slew of attackers. It's like ballroom dancing with a high body count.
Vaughn referred to it as "the smoke dance."
"I remember thinking, are we going to get away with this? And it was very scary when we were testing the movie when these big sequences that a were incredibly expensive and hard to make," Vaughn said. "And then you're thinking, are we going to get just laughed at or told, cut it out. And luckily they played through the roof. We got rounds of applause and whooping and cheering."
"Argylle" is fun mainly because Sam Rockwell dances his way through anything the film throws at him.
"He can definitely dance," Vaughn said. "Some actors love to ad-lib. Sam just loves to ad-dance. He's amazing the way he does it. But one of the whole concepts of the movie is sort of taking all the spy cliché tropes, which I'm guilty of sort of creating with 'The Kingsman' — the handsome guy with a ridiculous haircut in a well cut suit and then having Sam Rockwell as the real life spy. And I just loved the idea of doing sequences where this is what the fantasy spy would do, and this is what the real spy is doing. And they both have the same result at the end. But there's two different paths to get to that pinnacle."
Rockwell dances around tropes and clichés as easily as his character dodges bullets and bombs. Howard, however, is adequate as the timid novelist but less convincing as the character undergoes some significant changes. Howard doesn't have much range so the role taxes her talent. But the character is an interesting female action role and suggests a sweetness and humanity that we don't usually see in Vaughn's work.
Props to Catherine O'Hara and Bryan Cranston for delivering the goods in small supporting roles.
"Argylle" has uneven pacing and runs a bit too long but it does deliver on the escapism that Vaughn promised his daughters.