Robert Zemeckis’ romantic masterpiece Romancing the Stone is celebrating its 40th anniversary this March, and so what better way to remind you of its effortless action-romance perfection than by once again bastardizing its concept—don’t think I forgot about you, The Lost City—for a bloated, unfunny, and chemistry-free heap of CG’d-up gunk. Matthew Vaughn’s Argylle coughs up a furball reimagining Kathleen Turner’s cat-lady romance-novelist as Bryce Dallas Howard’s cat-lady spy-writer, who also learns to laugh live and love (all three, such greed) as she gets pulled into one of her own stories irl. And you know it’s bad when even the charm-master Sam Rockwell’s eyes, so tired and so weak, seem to be screaming, “Hey listen, I know I’m no Michael Douglas.”
Tedious to the extreme at nearly two and a half hours, Argylle’s ideas are as confused as we all were when we saw the first images of Henry Cavill’s character with a flat-top and an emerald green velvet Nehru Jacket. Cavill plays the imaginary spy named Argylle who leads the series of blockbuster spy books that have made author Elly Conway (Howard) a household name—and when Elly reads from her stories we see Cavill, in his inexplicable Frankenstein-silhouetted get-up, acting out her Bond-esque fantasies. (Unfortunately, not her Bond-age fantasies—Dakota Johnson saved me. I’d rather be watching a Fifty Shades of Grey movie than this dreck.)
And for some inexplicable reason, Vaughn, who never met a visual conceit he couldn’t pancake into the pavement, tosses a good portion of the movie into Elly’s first-person POV. If you ever wanted your movie screen to blink at you, to endlessly blink, then I have got the movie for you. The gag is that once the real spy stuff starts happening, Elly keeps confusing the real-life spy—he’s named Aidan, and he’s played by the aforementioned very tired Sam Rockwell—with her fictional character. And so in the middle of an action scene, she’ll blink, and it’ll be Henry Cavill, and then she’ll blink again, and it’s back to Rockwell, and back and forth and back and forth, which the film mines approximately ten seconds of humor from before giving us a headache from all of the blinking.
But who can blame the film for wanting to shut its own eyes? I related. A notable plot point in the movie that gets repeated is people keep getting drugged and falling asleep—which yes we see more than once from Elly’s blinking perspective—and I began to think the exhaustion was actual text. Part of me worried that Matthew Vaughn might be trying to tell us something. If you’re trapped inside a spy franchise and want to get out, have your next movie blink twice at us, Matthew!
Anyway, the real-life spies show up in Elly’s life because she’s just too good at writing spy stuff, and they think they can smack her upside the head like a tuning fork and find out the answers to some nonsense spy shenanigans. They need the answers, too. Aidan is there to rescue her—or is he???—while a squad of bad guys—or are they?— are trying to kill her—is are they??? Inevitably those motives will flip flop twenty times with reveal after wearying reveal, to the point where none of what happened in the plot five seconds before makes a cat-lick of sense. At least Catherine O’Hara (playing Elly’s mum with a tinge of her patented Home-Alone-esque hysteria) is there to side-eye things for us, and every time the film cuts to her, it’s good enough for a chuckle.
And then there’s Elly’s grumpy cat named Alfie, who comes along for the adventure and who is given, in the grand tradition of movie animal sidekicks, one hundred and fifty percent too many reaction shots. Typical of the movie’s bewildering plot, I half expected Alfie to rip off their face Mission-Impossible-style and actually be Henry Cavill underneath. Spoiler alert that does not happen. But as gets teased in the film’s mid-end-credits sequence, it’s never too late! There’s always more appetite for nonsense in the Vaughn-verse!
You should know all of this moaning is coming from a fan of The Kingsman—as well as The King’s Man—movies. Vaughn’s infatuation with violent cornball chaos can and has been an entertainment to me in times of such need. Argylle is, unfortunately, the director’s worst movie by leaps and kitty-cat bounds—we’ve come a very long way from Layer Cake, my friends. Ploddingly heavy with exposition that keeps brushing up its own footsteps behind itself, Argylle only even starts trying to fly in its final, distant act, giving us a pair of big foolish action-scenes that dial into Vaughn’s usual human Looney Tunes frequency. Too loony, too late. I beg you to just put on your Blu-ray of Romancing the Stone (physical media saves the day again) or just take a long cat nap instead.