For those just tuning in, I fucking hate Pan. I hate it with a passion. I hate it with a fury. I hate it with a vengeance. To this day, I still hate it more than any other movie I’ve ever reviewed. Say what you will about The Flash (and I’ve said more than my share on record), but even that movie wasn’t as lazy, stupid, ugly, nonsensical, and custom-built to shit all over the source material and those who love it.
But then director Joe Wright said in an interview that he publicly regretted making Pan, to the point where he considered quitting the film industry altogether. And anyway, Pan was such an egregious crime against humanity that putting all the blame on any one person probably wouldn’t be fair. So I was content to accept the apology and give Wright a second chance. That second chance happened to be The Woman in the Window, adapting a book written by a plagiarist piece of shit, in which the killer’s sole motivation is mental illness.
Joe Wright is now securely on my shitlist, one of the few filmmakers I hold a deep-seated personal vendetta against. Make an offensively bad movie once, shame on you. Make an offensively bad movie twice, fuck you forever with a rusty chainsaw lubed with lemon juice.
Even so, because I gave a second chance to Wright, I felt obliged to give a second chance to Pan screenwriter Jason Fuchs. After all, he was writing a script for a dazzling all-star cast under the visionary director Matthew Vaughn. By all appearances, this was going to be a great time.
If only it wasn’t for the screenplay with Fuchs as the sole credited writer. And now he’s on my shitlist, right in between Joe Wright and Ehren Kruger. Choke on a fire hose and go to hell for your sins against culture and cinema, you tasteless, mindless, goatfucking hack.
Bryce Dallas Howard plays Elizabeth “Elly” Conway, the massively successful author of a spy adventure series starring the eponymous Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill). She’s just published the fourth novel in the series and she’s already completed the manuscript for the fifth. The kicker is that by whatever miracle, Conway is so adept at writing these books that she’s somehow capable of predicting events that actually transpire.
Enter the Division, a rogue spy agency serving as the real-life counterpart to the Directorate of Elly’s books. For obvious reasons, the Division (with Bryan Cranston playing its director) has a vested interest in getting hold of Elly’s manuscript and learning the events she’s predicting before the public can get hold of her book. Matters are further complicated with the arrival of Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell), another rogue agent who steps in to protect Elly and beat the Division at their own game. And we’re off to the races.
Right off the bat, Matthew Vaughn has the tone of the movie perfectly nailed. It doesn’t matter if the lines are cliche. It doesn’t matter if the CGI is sketchy (in particular, the feline comic relief looks pathetically uneven in spots). It doesn’t matter if a few of the jokes are groaners. All that matters here is style. The tone works because everyone full-on commits to the gag. Over-the-top fun is the name of the game here, and everyone commits to making everything as stupidly awesome as possible. And if it turns out awesomely stupid instead, it’s all part of the fun.
It’s a Herculean task trying to make a film that blends genres into something greater than the sum of its parts, and everybody here went all-out in trying to make the film work as a comedy/action/spy thriller/romance/suspense thriller. Too bad it never quite meshes.
Let’s take the cast, for instance. Yes, Bryce Dallas Howard capably anchors the film with a superbly dynamic performance. Yes, Sam Rockwell is firing on all cylinders like never before. Individually, these actors are perfectly matched to their respective roles. But their chemistry together is nil. And in a movie that crucially depends on the comedic/duplicitous/romantic relationship between the two, that’s kind of a big problem.
We also run into the classic issue of a stacked cast loaded with too many actors to be used to their full potential. I won’t spoil who gets more or less screentime, but it’s outright depressing to see so many proven action/comedy actors reduced to what’s basically a glorified cameo.
But all of this is secondary to the major overarching problem with this movie, and it’s the main reason why I’m putting so much blame on the screenwriter: The film keeps trying too damned hard to be clever.
Yes, I get that intrigue and skullduggery are part of the fun. Yes, there are legitimate questions as to how and why Elly knows what she does, and whether her new spy partner (or anyone else) can be trusted. But there comes a point when the big reveals and plot twists compound on top of each other and start contradicting each other. There comes a point when the plot becomes incomprehensible and flies clear off the rails.
Granted, the film is trying to make a big heartfelt thematic statement about finding your identity and who your real friends are. And it might’ve worked if the plot twists felt like a means of telling a story and not an end in themselves.
Put it all together with the film’s own self-aware wink-at-the-camera sensibilities, and it feels like the filmmakers are doing all of this just to flex. It feels like the filmmakers are less interested in telling a story and more concerned with showing how much more clever they are than the audience. (Something the audience will always pick up on and resent the filmmaker for — just look at M. Night Shyamalan.)
Another terrible side effect of the labyrinthine plot is that we lose sight of basic information about the story. For instance, why does the Division need to be stopped? What happens if our heroes get the MacGuffin and what happens if they don’t? Who even is the Division, and do they work for anyone that much worse than whomever our heroes are working for? The filmmakers put so much time and effort into keeping us confused as to who the good guys and bad guys really are, we’ve got no reason to emotionally invest in the global stakes when it really matters.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on the last-minute reveal going into the mid-credits stinger. We had all better hope to the holiest deity that this movie never gets a sequel — if it ever does, this series will eat its own tail in record time. At this rate, the entire Matthew Vaughn filmography will retcon itself into self-contradictory madness faster than you can say “John Kramer” if this is allowed to continue.
Argylle had everything it needed except a coherent script. Except for the subpar chemistry between the two leads, the whole cast is astounding. The action scenes are great fun to watch. Matthew Vaughn brought a delectable sense of style and humor to every shot, even if polished CGI was less of a priority.
If only the script didn’t tie itself into knots trying to outsmart the audience. If only the film wasn’t so focused on umpteen unpredictable plot twists that the whole story became incoherent. Though I respect a film that sets out to try and blow our minds, that can’t be considered an end in itself unless you want a film that drives the audience to hair-pulling insanity.
In the movie, there’s an apartment with wallpaper over brick walls. And a suspicious Elly peels back the wallpaper to show that the walls have gaping spackled-over holes in them. That’s a fantastic visual metaphor for this movie: All that craftsmanship and effort for a flimsy facade over a crumbling foundation with giant gaping holes.
Matthew Vaughn, you’re better than this. Try harder. Jason Fuchs, you’re a godforsaken hack. Go fuck off.