Matthew Vaughn, the mastermind of a string of sadistically inventive action movies including Kick-Ass and the Kingsman series, wants to keep things a little lighter with his new spy romp, Argylle. “What the movie came out of, really, was watching Romancing the Stone with my daughters,” he told Polygon during a brief interview in a London hotel after a screening of the movie. Vaughn whiled away the 2020 COVID lockdown by showing films to his wife and teenage daughters, and the 1984 romantic adventure romp starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner “played like gangbusters,” he said. “And they said, ‘Well, you should make a movie like this, please, for us.’”

He has and he hasn’t. There are some obvious similarities in the premise: Romancing the Stone is about a romance novelist who gets sucked into a perilous, post-Raiders of the Lost Ark smuggling plot in the wilds of Colombia that could come straight from the pages of one of her own books. (2022’s The Lost City follows a similar plot, in another clear homage to Romancing the Stone.) Argylle, meanwhile, introduces lonely author Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), who writes rip-roaring spy thrillers in the James Bond mold, centered on dashing super-spy Aubrey Argylle (Henry Cavill). Struggling with the ending to her latest book, Elly is approached out of the blue by a real spy, Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who says she’s being hunted by a villainous syndicate called The Division because her books have predicted their plans with eerie accuracy, and they think she holds the key to their next move.

Vaughn, though, isn’t the type to take a setup like this purely at face value. The restless, postmodern ingenuity of his staging — particularly when it comes to action — drives him to create multiple levels to the story. First, Vaughn builds an in-fiction layer around the characters and action in Elly’s books, featuring Cavill, John Cena, Ariana DeBose, and Dua Lipa in a knowingly ridiculous send-up of cinematic spy action thrillers. Then he smashes his two story worlds together. When The Division’s operatives attack Elly and Aidan on a train, a confused Elly keeps hallucinating Aidan swapping places with the fictional Argylle amid the ensuing fracas — sometimes even mid-punch.

That fight scene is a bravura set-piece, brilliantly edited, and performed with winning energy and precision by Howard, Rockwell, and Cavill. Very clever violence is what Vaughn does — arguably better than any other director. While some viewers might reject the facile unreality and tacky VFX of the opening “fictional” action sequence, the train fight will probably bring them back on board. But when it comes to metafictional shenanigans, Vaughn is only getting started.

Sam Rockwell, brandishing a silenced pistol, leads a scared-looking Bryce Dallas Howard down a corridor in Argylle

Photo: Peter Mountain/Universal Pictures/Apple Original Films

Jason Fuchs’ screenplay is structured around a series of twists and reversals, some of which are easier to see coming, though none are particularly hard to predict. With each one, Vaughn rips a slightly larger hole in the veil between the film’s two levels — Elly and Aidan’s “real-world” adventure, and the in-fiction exploits of Argylle and friends. And not just in terms of the characters, or the plot mechanics. The tones of these two fictional layers start to infect each other, and Elly’s reality, never that grounded to begin with, becomes increasingly arch and fantastical.

There’s another metafictional layer outside the movie, too. According to its publicity, Argylle was inspired by a new spy novel by a real Elly Conway, whose vague biography has some similarities with the fictional Elly’s. The book is real — it’s just been published, you can buy it — and it’s straight spy fiction about Aubrey Argylle, just like the fictional Elly’s books.

But its provenance is mysterious enough that the internet was able to briefly convince itself that Taylor Swift wrote it. Vaughn swears that a manuscript landed in his lap just as he was considering his Romancing the Stone-style project, and he decided, mischievously, to combine the two. But the film conspicuously carries no “adapted from” credit, and the way the fictional Elly’s character is developed in the movie might give audiences further reason to doubt the real Elly’s… reality.

Which came first, the book or the movie? Is this film’s origin story all just a marketing gimmick? The backstory only contributes to the air of smug artificiality around Argylle, and by the time a head-scratching mid-credits scene rolls, audiences might feel bamboozled and a little distanced from it all.

Sam Rockwell, with long hair and beard, holds a copy of the book Argylle by Elly Conway in the film Argylle

Image: Universal Pictures/Apple Original Films

This kind of smart-alecky ironization of pop culture is a matter of taste, and it’s hardly a surprise, coming from Vaughn. But it seems to me that it can’t help but undercut the movie, and thwart his original intent to make a fun, light, romantic thriller in the Romancing the Stone mold. Howard and Rockwell are both funny, charismatic actors, but it’s a struggle for them to build real romantic chemistry amid all Argylle’s layered artificiality.

The movie does have a kind of campy energy that transcends its contrivance — just like “Electric Energy,” the implausibly catchy bit of manufactured soundtrack disco that promotes it. But even its most joyous moments, like a gun battle that’s been choreographed as a swooning, Technicolor ballroom dance for Rockwell and Howard, feel insincere and jokey, like they come framed in quotation marks.

Romancing the Stone is a frothy movie with a self-aware premise, but key to its appeal is that its makers and stars fully buy into that premise and play it like they mean it. Its director, Robert Zemeckis, is a past master of this tricky tonal space: The simultaneously sincere, comic, and fantastical voice that defined the likes of his movies Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump. It would be tough to buy into the film’s characters otherwise, or to be swept up in their high-stakes escapades, or to thrill to Douglas and Turner’s electric on-screen chemistry.

That heightened, faux-sincere voice isn’t just a function of romantic adventure movies. The spy genre, too, is one where the more ludicrous the plotting, the more straight-faced the execution needs to be for the filmmakers to get away with it. The Mission: Impossible movies are patently silly, but the engine that powers them is Tom Cruise’s fiercely palpable conviction that everything happening on the screen is deadly serious — to the extent that he’ll jump out of a plane in real life to prove it.

Argylle is too winking, too keen to show that it’s in on its own joke, to admit any real romantic feeling or any excitement that runs deeper than the surface level of its flashy choreography. Vaughn, the impish ringmaster, delights in challenging the audience to figure out what’s real and what’s fictional within his stylized, nested worlds. It’s just that he never really answers the question: Why should we care? With Argylle, he mounts a playful, rollicking thriller with an all-star cast and some dazzling action — but then holds the audience at arm’s length from it, just to show how clever he’s been in putting it together. The truly clever thing would have been to let the dumb film be joyously dumb, and invite the audience to lose themselves in it instead.

Argylle opens in theaters on Feb. 2.

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