Matthew Vaughn’s career has been a turbulent one as a filmmaker. He first made a name for himself as a producer, specifically as the one who guided the early films of Guy Ritchie. After the success of Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), Vaughn believed that it was time for his own foray into directing. Staying within the comfort zone that he was familiar with through his collaboration with Guy Ritchie, he debuted as a director with his own take on the British gangster film genre; 2004’s Layer Cake. Starring a pre-007 Daniel Craig, Layer Cake was generally well received by audiences and critics. And while many would have thought Matthew Vaughn would’ve followed Guy Ritchie’s continued success within this gangster film genre, Vaughn surprisingly went in a much different direction and spread his wings out into the realm of fantasy filmmaking. His follow-up would be the fantasy adventure Stardust (2007), which while being a big departure from Layer Cake it still showed Vaughn’s talent for mixing action and comedy together, something that he would continue to expand upon in his later films. Those skills would especially propel him to further success as he extended into the comic book genre. His next film, the hyper-violent super hero send-up Kick Ass (2010) would be the purest expression of Matthew Vaughn’s cinematic style yet. The cartoonish excess of his action scenes would become the staple of his directorial style, and it would be the thing that guided his career as a director through the next decade. Almost a year after making Kick Ass, he was called upon by Marvel and 20th Century Fox to help revive the ailing X-Men franchise, and he managed to succeed there as well, giving that franchise the reboot it desperately needed with X-Men: First Class (2011). But where Matthew Vaughn would take his talents next would be a turning point for him as a filmmaker. He would soon launch a franchise that both gave him the best showcase for his talents yet but also would end up holding him back and begin a decline in what had been a momentous career up to that point.
Working again with source material from comic book writer Mark Millar (Kick Ass), Matthew Vaughn set out to bring the comic series Kingsman to the silver screen. Kingsman: The Secret Society (2015) was all of Vaughn’s best cinematic tricks put together in one fun romp of a movie. The mix of cartoonish action and excessive violence mixed in with a cultured English aesthetic was a winning formula, and the film became Matthew Vaughn’s biggest success to date. The church massacre scene in particular, where Colin Firth’s secret agent character takes out an entire congregation of crazed zealots in a brilliantly choreographed oner is seen by many to be one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed. The success of this film led Vaughn to undertake a first in his booming career as a director; he was going to direct a sequel. Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) was quickly churned out in two years, and anticipation was high given the beloved status of the original. Sadly, lightning didn’t strike twice as the reception of The Golden Circle was not as warm, making this the first misfire of Vaughn’s career. What had been his strong suit up to this point was now starting to become his weakness; namely the irreverent comedic tone of his action scenes. When Elton John, in an extended cameo, is doing obvious wirework fight scenes in the movie, the humorous tone begins to fall apart. Add to this a lot of plot contrivances and a bloated 2 1/2 hour run time, and many Kingsman fans came away disappointed. You would think after this disappointment that Matthew Vaughn would want to move on, but shockingly he remained committed to this franchise. He chose to next direct a prequel to the Kingman franchise by showing the origins of the organization in the awkwardly titled The King’s Man (2021). The film suffered from the affects of the Covid-19 pandemic, delaying it over a year, and while it was more consistent in tone than it’s predecessor, the film still failed to generate renewed interest in the waning franchise. Cut to now and Matthew Vaughn is still finding himself in the espionage genre, but he’s hoping to begin again with a new potential franchise launch with the film Argylle (2024).
Argylle follows the life of a lonely espionage novelist named Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose Agent Argylle books are international best-sellers. Though she is immensely popular for her writing, she chooses to live a solitary life in her secluded Rocky Mountain getaway with her beloved feline companion Alfie. Occasionally she’ll receive feedback on her books from her mother Ruth (Catherine O’Hara), who tries to needle her into being more outgoing. While she writes her newest novel, she vividly pictures in her mind how it will look, with Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) being a dashing super spy who is assisted by his tech wiz Keira (Ariana DeBose) and his musclebound back-up man Wyatt (John Cena). When she hits her writers block moment, Elly decides to travel cross country to visit her mother and father in Chicago. While taking the train, she ends up sitting across the aisle from a stranger who just so happens to be reading her book. He introduces himself as Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell) and bluntly tells her that he’s in the business of espionage, which she dismisses as a joke. However, the two are approached by another fan seeking an autograph who suddenly tries to attack Elly. The attack is thwarted by Aidan, who disposes with a dozen or so would-be assassins, and the two manage to escape by parachuting off of the moving train, along with Elly’s cat Alfie in a carrying pack. Once safe, Aidan confides that Elly’s Argylle novels have predicted real events in the past, and a shadow organization is trying to get to her because they believe her oracle like senses will lead them to a black book of secret files. The leader of the shadow organization named Director Ritter (Bryan Cranston) is hell bent on getting to Elly before Aidan can bring her to his own director, also named Alfie (Samuel L. Jackson). Elly embarks on a harrowing mystery that turns up many surprises along the way, all of which makes her realize that Argylle is more than just a character she made up for her book.
It is certainly nice to see Matthew Vaughn pull away from the Kingman funk that he has fallen into over the last few years, but it leaves us with the question as to whether he has something new to offer as a director. Sadly, Argylle is not the revitalizing tonic that he needed as a filmmaker. Even worse, this movie is actually the worst film he has made so far. While the Kingman films became a little scattershot over time, they still displayed a strong sense of style that at least kept them watchable. Argylle on the other hand doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. This movie is one of the most unfocused films I have seen in a long time, as it tries to be so many things all at once. It wants to be a comedy, but it tries way too hard to be shocking with it’s twists and turns; it wants to be cartoonishly violent, but seems to be undermined by it’s PG-13 rating; and it wants to be grandiose and operatic in it’s scale, but just looks artificial most of the time. I think that the problems with this movie stem mostly from the screenplay itself, written by Jason Fuchs, whose credits to date include Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012) and notorious box office bomb Pan (2015). Fuch’s script tries way too hard to be a Romancing the Stone (1983) style action romantic comedy, with plot twists that think they are clever but are telegraphed way too clumsily that you can see them coming a mile away. While Vaughn’s flashy style can overcome shortcomings in the script, it sadly becomes it’s own problem simultaneously as the excesses become more obnoxious than engaging and the film brings out Vaughn’s worst tendencies as a filmmaker. Every problem that started with his sequels in the Kingsman franchise are amplified here. As well choreographed as the action scenes are, they just don’t land as well when you don’t care about much else from the movie.
That’s not to say that the movie gets everything wrong. While the movie is a failure in most places, one thing they do get right is the chemistry between the two leads. What helps to keep this movie from becoming a total disaster is the performances of Sam Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard as Aidan and Elly. They are not awards worthy performances, but they do help to ground the movie and give it a bit of redeeming power; particularly with Rockwell. Sam’s performance as Aidan is the clearest high point of the whole movie, as he seems to be the only actor that understands the assignment. He’s charming, funny, and surprisingly adept in the action sequences which he gets quite a few moments with before he’s replaced with the stunt double. You can definitely see a Bruce Willis in his prime quality with Sam Rockwell’s work here, as he perfectly balances the humor with the sincerity of his duty as a figure within an action movie scenario. Bryce Dallas Howard does the best she can with a character whose whole story gets more and more convoluted as the movie goes, and it’s in the moments she shares with Sam Rockwell on screen where her performance shines the most. Honestly, it’s in the brief moments where the two characters are aloud to actually connect on a human level that the movie actually finds it’s brief footing. I wish the movie was more about them working off each other and solving the mystery together rather than series of plot detours and action set pieces that it ends up devolving into. The ingredients are certainly all there, but Vaughn just refuses to pick a lane and decides to go for the loudest and most insane trek possible. And it ruins what otherwise would’ve been a fun romp of a spy action comedy.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. The imaginings of the Agent Argylle books give very little for the actors to do, but that seems to be the point as the characters are meant to be archetypes. Still when you have a trio as talented as Henry Cavill, John Cena, and Ariana DeBose together on screen, you’d like to see them emote just a little bit. Cavill’s part in the movie is especially confusing, as Matthew Vaughn doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with the Agent Argylle character. He flashes in and out of Elly’s imagination throughout the movie, as if Vaughn wanted to keep Cavill in as much of the movie as he could beyond just a cameo. But for someone who is supposed to be the movie’s namesake, Argylle is such a throwaway character and Cavill’s whole participation just comes down to looking literally like an action figure. I feel bad for Henry Cavill as he is very much a talented actor, but he sadly gets dumped into these failed action franchises that end up wasting his talents. There’s a bit more gained from the inclusion of veterans like Bryan Cranston and Catherine O’Hara. O’Hara especially gets to shine here, taking her comedic chops and working them surprisingly well into a more action packed movie. Cranston has a nice menacing presence, though his villainous character is sadly underdeveloped and is fairly bland overall. Strangely enough, it’s really just the cat that comes across as the most sympathetic screen presence, and half of the time he’s a visual effect, given the dangerous situations that they put him through. Overall, the movie has an enviable all-star cast that it ultimately just ends up wasting. It’s not surprising that the movie was bankrolled by a mega-corporation like Apple, as they clearly had the money to cast big names in all the parts. But none of that promise with this kind of cast translates as they are all just lost in the shuffle of Vaughn’s excessive direction and the unfocused story that values shocking twists over actual character development.
Another big problem is the visual degradation of Matthew Vaughn’s style that this movie seems to demonstrate. Vaughn, for most of the early part of his career, was able to balance his excesses as a visual story-teller with a clear sense of vision that was cohesive. But through the Kingsman sequels and Argylle, the style is clearly overwhelming the substance. One of the big issues is that he seems to be relying too heavily on CGI to get the style he wants for his action scenes. The reason why movies like Kick Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Society worked is because they had a lot of thought put into the fight choreography first and foremost, and then later used visual effects to accentuate. This was definitely evident in the church fight from Kingsman, which had the visceral mayhem of a handheld shot, but was aided by CGI to help add the blood and cover up the edits in the quick pans. This is also why The King’s Man worked better than The Golden Circle, because there were more scenes involving real stunts than visual effects. Sadly, it’s all too obvious that most of Argylle’s big stunts were constructed using computers. There’s two visually operatic action sequences late in the movie that might have worked better had they not felt so artificial. It’s where Vaughn’s instincts are working against him, as his need to go big are robbing the movie of it’s impact. It’s the unfortunate desire on his part to go further than he had in the Kingman movies, but using a shortcut to get there. He went from cartoonishly violent to just a cartoon by the end of this movie. It’s also laughable that this is supposed to be a globetrotting movie, but it’s obvious they never left their London area soundstages as most of the movie is reliant on greenscreen for all the locales. It’s a sad result for a film director like Matthew Vaughn who for the longest time was one of the most inventive and exciting filmmakers of the moment.
Argylle is sadly another step down for Matthew Vaughn as a filmmaker. It’s like everything from Kingsman: The Secret Society on has been one big audition reel for a James Bond movie, but it just keeps getting sloppier the longer it goes on. While James Bond has it’s own excesses, it does know how to play by it’s own rules and also it’s a franchise that knows when to revitalize itself with fresh blood. Matthew Vaughn for some reason seems to be chasing his own bad instincts and letting them undermine the work that he does. He has a creative eye for action, but he seems to be losing the confidence to make that work in a realistic way. Argylle shows a director at odds with himself, unable to reign in a big project with the same kind of focus that he used to. Perhaps he needs to step away from the spy stuff for a while and find a different kind of movie to make that his talents would be best suited for. It was certainly interesting when he stepped into the fantasy genre with Stardust; I wonder if he still has that kind of movie in him. He’s also been pretty vocal about what he’d do with a property like Star Wars as of late. Perhaps he should get a shot at a sci-fi film like that. He basically just needs to have a reinvention of some kind, because his creative juices are just not flowing anymore as a spy film director; or even as a comedy director. As someone who was very much on board with his first five films, I found Argylle to be yet another crushing let down for a director that needs to do better. In the end, all the flashy style and many twists and turns do nothing to resurrect a bare bones effort and it just ends up being a bore by the finale. It’s a waste of top tier talent and will likely not be the franchise starter that it’s aiming to be. The best it could do is to wake up Matthew Vaughn from his career stagnation and help him see the shortfalls that he’s been mired in for far too long. Hopefully then, we can get back to the fun, inventive action packed material that we got excited for in Matthew Vaughn’s earlier work and hopefully forget Argylle as a footnote in the grand scheme of his cinematic body of work.