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Where Have All the Original Action Movies Gone?

Where Have All the Original Action Movies Gone?
Where Have All the Original Action Movies Gone?

Matthew Vaughn’s Argylle borrows from a lot of very recent spy-thriller history.

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January 31, 2024, 2:35 PM ET

I have to give some credit to Matthew Vaughn’s new film, Argylle, for one thing: It is not—repeat, not—based on anything. An action movie with a reported near–$200 million budget and no connection to any preexisting intellectual property should be thrilling, a glorious throwback to the days when big films could just be about people punching and shooting each other without referencing some other storytelling universe. But it’s been curious to watch the public perception of Argylle, which is being marketed as a mystery film, in the lead-up to its release. Surely this movie couldn’t be just another guns-blazing spy thriller? What is the twist at the heart of Argylle? Did Taylor Swift secretly write it?

I will leave many of the movie’s largest plot swerves to be discovered by viewers, though I can at least say that Swift seemingly has no involvement. But the meta-narratives around Argylle are quite telling, indicating how unusual it’s become for a blockbuster movie like this—loaded with name actors and the kind of over-the-top flashy combat one expects from a Mission: Impossible film—to exist on its own. In presenting something ostensibly new, Vaughn (who has spent the past decade largely occupied with his Kingsman series) has borrowed from every giant 21st-century action franchise, creating an “original” film that feels entirely built out of current pop culture’s constituent parts.

The hero of Argylle, initially, seems to be the dashing Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill), a brawny, bullet-headed secret agent who does battle with evil spies in sunny European locales, just like James Bond and his many other imitators. The film’s opening act is right out of a Bond movie, zested up with Vaughn’s typically manic style; as he does in Kingsman and its two follow-up films, every bit of hand-to-hand combat or vehicular mayhem is bedazzled with vibrant colors, a pumping soundtrack, and absurd, gravity-defying stunts. Argylle is accompanied in his crime fighting by his sidekick, Wyatt (John Cena), and a tech whiz, Keira (Ariana DeBose); his enemy is a pouting villainess played by the singer Dua Lipa.

It’s all perfectly agreeable nonsense. Vaughn is a director who came out of the gate strong with the silly gangster thriller Layer Cake, which slathered visual panache over the Guy Ritchie formula, but his creative passions have always leaned more comic-booky. Some of his movies, such as Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, were lifted directly from that medium; others, like the Kingsman movies, just felt indebted to them, adding a further goofy dimension to the already fanciful spy-movie genre. Argylle leans into that kind of self-awareness by having the adventures of Agent Argylle be fiction within fiction: the plot of a best-selling book series by the mousy writer Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard).

That means that Vaughn can toggle between the fantasy world Elly has created and the “real world,” where the author is targeted by actual spies convinced that she must know something, given that her novels contain eerie parallels with actual espionage. The only issue is that Vaughn’s conception of the “real world” is just as outlandish as the Cavill-starring fantasy. Elly is swept into a variety of adventures by a spy named Aidan (Sam Rockwell), dodging a nefarious agency boss played by Bryan Cranston and hopping the globe while protesting that she belongs at home with her Scottish fold cat.

I won’t reveal anything else about Argylle’s twisty-turny plot (yes, I’ve seen the trailers that instructed me to not “let the cat out of the bag”), but as much as I admire Vaughn and the screenwriter Jason Fuchs’s attempts to throw in so many worlds within worlds, I found myself exhausted by the movie’s inability to differentiate between “fiction” and “reality.” Everything in Argylle has a Day-Glo palette, is choreographed to the hilt, and has actors like Rockwell and Jackson delivering the kinds of wisecracking performances they’ve offered Hollywood for decades now. It’s definitely nice to see Rockwell cut loose and have fun again—he’s been somewhat trapped in prestige world since winning an Oscar for 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—but he’s deployed this shtick plenty of times before, just as Howard has played a flaky charmer and Cavill, a resolute action man.

Perhaps I should carp less. As Hollywood stumbles forward, post-strike and post-COVID, it seems that the reliable box-office winners of recent years (superheroes and the like) are going to be less bankable going forward. Something like Argylle, which strives to put a new sheen on familiar formulas, is a watchable substitute, but not exciting enough to feel like a reinvention. If it ran a good deal shorter than its roomy two-hour-and-19-minute running time, it’d probably be an even easier recommendation—but right now, I’ll take fun, giddy action like this wherever I can get it.

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