Monday, February 5, 2024

Argylle is every cliché it thinks it's mocking

It's bold, to put it mildly, to make a story about storytelling that has no clue of how stories work

Matthew Vaughn's new spy film Argylle is clearly proud of itself for stacking so many secrets inside secrets, although the trick is not executed as elegantly as a Matryoshka, its artfulness befitting more a turducken. Twist after twist pile up in absurd proportions without even the benefit of being surprising, killing the plot by starvation moments before it would regardless have died of strangulation. It's possible to tolerate a ridiculous movie that is aware of its ridiculousness. It's torture to live through a ridiculous movie that knows it's ridiculous and also believes it's being clever.

Argylle kicks into motion by shaking the world of novelist Elly Conway, whose cheesy spy fiction has veered too close to real life and attracted the attention of actual spy agencies. So, for the first third of the movie, it looks like we're in a higher-stakes version of Stranger than Fiction. How is Elly able to predict international crises in such detail? That's a big premise. Alas, the plot twists in Argylle quickly fall into a routine of replacing the viewer's suspicions with a less interesting alternative. Oh, does Elly somehow sense the future? No, it turns out those events already happened. Oh, is her new spy friend plotting to kill her? No, he was speaking in hyperbole. Oh, is a close relative secretly also a member of the bad guys? Well, yes, but he wasn't really a relative, so the emotional impact is lost. Oh, did Elly betray her spy friend? Sorta, but only as part of an overcomplicated gambit that goes nowhere because she forgot a password. Every time a twist seems to steer the narrative in a more exciting direction, the next twist deflates the excitement and brings the plot back to the mundane. Argylle doesn't use its twists to reveal more substance beneath, but to disguise the absence of substance. There's never a resolution that satisfies the viewer's curiosity; only the disorientation of continuously having to discard all that was said a moment ago.

To this basic filmmaking sin is added the misuse of the character of Elly as a writer. For the duration of the film's starting pretense that her imagination is connected to the events in the background, there's a fleeting hope that our heroine will take advantage of the devices of storytelling to anticipate the bad guys' moves and break their plans. After all, who better than a mystery writer to solve a mystery? But soon enough, the script expressly disavows that promise and turns into a more boring type of story. We weren't following Stranger than Fiction; we were following Total Recall. Everything we believed was special about Elly is the part of her she no longer has. Worse still, later we learn that Elly, the professional narrator, has been living a narrative crafted by someone else, and once again there's the missed opportunity to play with the power of stories to convincingly simulate reality. What does it say about the nature of storytelling that the unwitting subject of an entire fictional life ended up using fiction to unconsciously liberate herself?

There's no use in expecting answers. By this point, what little coherence still remained has gone out the window. We can almost hear the director giggling proudly, convinced that his genius has blown our minds, but he's just punched them repeatedly into a bloody pulp. Quick successions of betrayals and reveals of past betrayals make the actual, hidden plot so nonsensical in hindsight that reason gives up, rendered defenseless to swallow the hyperviolent extravaganza that ensues. And then the director goes deep into an exploration of the pointless question that no one asked but cinema seems unable to move beyond: Is mass killing an art form? I haven't watched John Wick, so I may never know. But Matthew Vaughn seems to find a form of beauty in a duet of machine guns in the middle of smoke bombs that form the shape of a heart, shortly followed by a disturbing blend of Olympic-level skating and serial slashing. Are we meant to laugh? Or look in awe? Or shake our heads at the shared acknowledgment that all spy fiction is inherently unserious? The tone of these scenes is so unstable that their intricate choreography is wasted on the confused audience.

The escalating ridiculousness in the last third of the movie culminates in a couple of reality-breaking twists that don't even register in the viewer's by now desensitized awareness. Sure, this character was never dead. Why not. Sure, this other character who isn't even supposed to exist can show up in the flesh. Go ahead. Who cares. Oh, this was all along a spinoff from the Kingsman franchise? What the hell, nothing matters anyway. Austin Powers already told all the jokes there were to tell about James Bond, so what's left for the rest of filmmakers is to mock themselves in a self-referencing death spiral as cosmic punishment for needlessly keeping this genre alive.

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.