Saturday, February 3, 2024

All Artificial, No Intelligence: ARGYLLE

Is this just what movies are going to be now? I sank in my seat as I asked myself that question while the deadening Argylle played out on screen. I dreaded the answer as my pessimism grew. The image was bright. The sound was loud. And I was entirely bored. The thing is just so phony I could hardly believe it as it grew worse by the second. The picture opens with an exaggerated goof on spy movie tropes as Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) chases a bombshell villainess (Dua Lipa) down twisty Grecian streets while his partners in espionage (John Cena and Ariana DeBose) press buttons and sip coffee. Dua Lipa is on a motorcycle doing tight turns and Cavill is sailing over rooftops in a jeep. There’s not a single shot that doesn’t look sloppily green-screened or like the actor’s face hasn’t been plastered on a stunt person or the digital recreation thereof. The dialogue is all tinny and the scenario entirely prefab. At least when it cuts to Bryce Dallas Howard playing the author of junky spy novels, revealing this prologue was a scene from her latest book, one can briefly entertain the notion that the exaggerated falseness was the point. But then scenes of Howard’s quote-unquote normal life proceed with the same blatantly chintzy computerized backdrops and, as the movie progresses, not a single location appears real in any meaningful sense. Every sequence—dialogue and action alike—is shot with the same bland sloppiness as the opening. It gets less forgivable every time it shows a glitchy face-replacement or cartoon cat effect. When you can’t even get a real cat on set, or at least make a convincing digital double, something’s gone awry.

The movie ramps up into more silliness—dragging through 140-some minutes of plot structured as nesting dolls of stupid twists—as the author is entangled in real espionage as warring spies want her to write the next chapter of a real case. The supporting cast—Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Catherine O’Hara, Bryan Cranston—gamely props up the silliness by snarling and chewing on every scrap of interest the dialogue manages to provide. (Not much; this is a movie that’s constantly, loudly grinning and nodding at its own misplaced sense of cleverness.) But with all this talent and potential, the movie is totally dead on arrival for its aesthetic sins. It’s a part of a mind-numbing trend of visual despair that finds the complete erasure of real things in head-scratching preference for the ugly fakery of pure digital mush. Real and talented performers are stranded with not only a nonsense plot pushed along by scenes of mindless exposition, but in entire worlds of falsehood. I’m sure it doesn’t help that every shot, every line, every concept, every twist is so totally overplayed and thoroughly cliched. It’s cluttered with noisy snark and pounding pseudo-ironic needle-drops and misfiring comedy and redirecting twists that all collide to undermine each other. In the end, Samuel L. Jackson spends half of the climax watching a Lakers game, and the other half watching a slow download’s progress bar, and that’s the fun part. Who cares about a floating CGI fortress blowing up in animated flames while our flimsy heroes speed off in a fake getaway boat into an unreal sunset? It’s witless fakery all the way down.

Used to be you could suspend your disbelief in a high-concept adventure movie because at least the cars and boats and landscapes and animals were real. And real things blew up in beautiful fireballs. And the effects served the story instead of feeling like a rich frosting that’s totally replaced the cake. Now we have this nadir of current trends, with a 200 million dollar movie from deep-pocketed studios, a name director, and a cast that’s cumulatively EGOTed, and it barely looks like a movie at all. It’s over lit, overwrought, computerized nothing. Not even scenes of people in a field or on a roof escape a completely disconnected physical space in front of computer-generated backdrops that make old-fashioned studio rear-projection look believable. Director Matthew Vaughn’s earlier works, like vulgar alt-superhero comedy Kick-Ass and the super-violent double-oh riffing Kingsman movies, are also hyperbolic and over-cranked works of excessive style in action and violence. But at least those have a kind of swirling CG coherence grounded in something pulpy and filmic. With Argylle it’s all frictionless digital blandness. For a big-budget spy movie, it doesn’t look expensive, or glamorous, and the action isn’t clever or exciting. It simply goes on and on, completely and totally alienated from reality and cinema alike. Of course it makes its main characters’ favorite song the new zombie Beatles track—they swirl down the same cultural gutter, amalgamated simulacrum of culture we used to enjoy. We’re in a time where cultural products can be all artificial, no intelligence.

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