THE STORY – Reclusive author Elly Conway writes best-selling espionage novels about a secret agent named Argylle who’s on a mission to unravel a global spy syndicate. However, when the plots of her books start to mirror the covert actions of a real-life spy organization, the line between fiction and reality begins to blur.
THE CAST – Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Catherine O’Hara, Dua Lipa, Ariana DeBose, John Cena & Samuel L. Jackson
THE TEAM – Matthew Vaughn (Director) & Jason Fuchs (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 139 Minutes
Best-selling author Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) has just released the fourth book in her series of spy novels featuring the dashing, masculine Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill). She’s also just finished the fifth, but her mother (Catherine O’Hara) thinks it’s high time she gives her readers an actual ending instead of her usual cliffhanger, and Elly is all out of ideas. On the train headed home to relax and brainstorm, Elly meets Aiden (Sam Rockwell), who informs her that not only is he a spy, but other spies on the train are after her. It turns out that Elly’s novels have reported actual events in the spy world with alarming accuracy, and now, some very bad people want her to help them find a missing flash drive filled with sensitive information. How has Elly done this? Who can she trust? Will she and her CGI cat survive?
“Argylle” begins as a pretty fun spy spoof, with a scene from Elly’s latest novel in which Argylle dances with the deadly femme fatale Lagrange (Dua Lipa) in an attempt to get an important item off her. Cavill and Lipa smolder, the camera gets placed in some ridiculous angles, and the dialogue winks at the audience with knowingly cheesy one-liners. For good measure, the visual effects look like something out of the early ’00s. Even after the reveal that this scene comes from Elly’s novel, the film has tremendous fun playing with spy tropes as she attempts to rewrite the ending of her next book and runs into Aiden on the train. Rockwell helps with this, putting a fresh spin on the “gentleman spy” character with his trademark impish energy. Rockwell thoroughly understands the assignment, giving the film a breezy, worry-free charm that it sorely misses whenever he’s not on screen.
Howard similarly always understands the assignment but often gets stuck in roles or films that don’t give her much of one. “Argylle” has the opposite problem, building Elly out of so many loose threads that she becomes a Gordian knot no actress could untie. She’s fun at the start when she’s mostly called upon to pull faces as she reacts to the assassins trying to kill her and Aiden kicking their butts – and getting his own butt kicked – in a very un-Argylle-like way. The more the film goes on, the more Howard is asked to do, and the more the film becomes a straight-up action flick instead of the spy spoof it began as. Without the comedy of cliché to fall back on, you can’t blame Howard for being unable to thread the needle in the film’s excruciatingly long last act.
That last act ends up encapsulating the film as a whole, in that it is over-indulgent, over-long, and overly impressed with itself in ways that are not surprising in the least when you learn the film is directed by Matthew Vaughn. The man behind the “Kingsman” series, Vaughn, has great ideas but tends to place emphasis on elements that look cool at the expense of coherence, rhythm, and tone. While this can work (against all odds, the first fight with Rasputin in “The King’s Man” is an absolute hoot), “Argylle” features two back-to-back fight sequences in its last act that are so overstimulating that they go from fun to mind-numbing in nothing flat. Both feature fun visual conceits – brightly-colored smoke bombs thrown in time with the soundtrack in one, an oil slick becoming an ice skating rink in the other – which get quickly overwhelmed by the CGI required to pull them off, reducing them to patently fake-looking mush. The whole film looks overly shiny in a way that reeks of digital manipulation, but it’s a good enough time for the first half that it’s not too bothersome. By the time we reach those climactic action sequences, though, Vaughn and crew have taken us through so many twists and turns and changes in tone that it’s no longer fun, and right when the film could most use an EpiPen of fun, the film unleashes its most garish visuals. The film’s last act is already long enough, but those back-to-back sequences kill what little momentum the film has left by that point, leaving the audience numb to the supposed-to-be thrilling conclusion.
The shiny surfaces and plastic quips of the film’s opening make “Argylle” seem like self-aware fun. Unfortunately, it turns out that Vaughn and screenwriter Jason Fuchs weren’t working with a full tank of gas. The film stalls out somewhere just after the halfway point when it finally makes good on the trailer’s promise and reveals the “real” Agent Argylle. Savvy audiences might worry about the film pulling a bait-and-switch on them with that twist. Still, the real bait-and-switch is how the film at first seems like a fun spy spoof but eventually reveals itself as an uninspired, by-the-numbers piece of shiny corporate product. “Argylle” desperately wants to be as smart, cool, and fun as the spy capers it spoofs early on, but as soon as it starts to take itself seriously, it loses whatever smarts, coolness, and sense of fun it had.