By Alex McPherson
Layered with twist upon twist adding up to not much at all, director Matthew Vaughn’s “Argylle” is a plodding spy adventure that doesn’t fully commit to its unhinged potential.
Vaughn’s film opens in green-screen-laden Greece, as Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) is on a mission to interrogate the alluring Lagrange (Dua Lipa) with the help of his sidekick Wyatt (John Cena) and tech wiz Keira (Ariana DeBose). After some flirting, sexy dancing, and a “Looney Tunes”-esque car chase defying all laws of physics through winding streets and rickety rooftops, Argylle and pals capture Lagrange. She says that she’s actually been taking orders from Argylle’s boss, played by Richard E. Grant.
After this revelation, the camera zooms in on Cavill’s mouth, gradually morphing into Elly Conway’s (Bryce Dallas Howard), who’s finishing a reading of her fourth Argylle novel in green-screen-laden Colorado. Elly, an insecure writer who cares more about her cat, Alfie, than having a social life, is currently writing the Agent’s fifth outing. She’s afflicted with writer’s block — ending on a cliffhanger where Argylle learns about a “master key” that can dismantle the rogue organization once and for all. Elly’s mother, Ruth (Catherine O’Hara), insists she write an additional chapter, and Elly boards a train to meet her.
On board, Elly bumps into an unkempt stranger named Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who informs her that there’s a whole bunch of professional killers out to get her. Apparently, Elly’s novels overlap with real-world espionage, and she can lead Aidan to the location of a flash drive that can bring down “The Division,” led by Director Ritter (Bryan Cranston). Bloodless carnage ensues as Aidan takes down the wannabe assassins — in a fun bit of editing, Elly sees Aidan’s visage switch with Argylle’s between blinks.
Aidan and Elly embark on a globe-trotting adventure where the lines between reality and fiction blur, limits of good taste are breached, and convoluted plotting takes center stage, with plenty of star-studded cameos, cartoonish action sequences, and “cute” CGI cat close-ups to hold viewers’ interest, or at least attempt to. Can Elly become the courageous Agent Argylle she writes about?
Although displaying flashes of Vaughn’s enjoyable who-gives-a-damn attitude, “Argylle” is a disappointingly stale affair — full of generic characters and filmmaking that largely refuses to meet its story on its own goofy wavelength. It’s a peculiarly dull experience that elicits few thrills despite constantly trying to one-up itself narratively, forgetting to present engaging characters and abandoning the premise’s potential in favor of sandbox-level shenanigans.
Vaughn’s no-holds-barred bravado in the opening is infinitely more enjoyable than Elly’s story back in reality, where Vaughn’s excessive tendencies are held back by a bland protagonist. Indeed, Elly just isn’t all that compelling — she’s a reclusive, socially awkward loner rendered all the more dull by Howard’s seemingly disengaged performance and a screenplay by Jason Fuchs that gives her little of the charm or wit of the people we’re introduced to in her writings. To make matters worse, Elly’s arc over the course of the film isn’t just unbelievable, it’s actively irritating; going from one extreme to another as the latest exposition dump dictates. Howard’s unconvincing line delivery does her absolutely no favors.
Supporting players fare marginally better. Aidan is the sort of likably unstable role that Rockwell slides into perhaps too easily, quipping often and boogying whenever the opportunity arises, albeit held back by the film’s film’s family-friendly “tell don’t show” philosophy. A moment where Aidan lightheartedly instructs Elly how to stomp bad guys’ skulls is amusing though baffling — why not just go with an R rating to begin with? Who is this film made for exactly?
Cranston chews scenery as the Big Bad Ritter, and O’Hara brings chaotic unpredictability to Ruth. Cavill is both suave and awkwardly hilarious in his sadly brief screen time, while Cena, DeBose, Lipa, and the legendary Samuel L. Jackson (who doesn’t even get to drop the film’s only F-bomb) are wasted in glorified cameos — no matter what the film’s promotional materials want you to believe.
As the 139-minute runtime drags on, Vaughn’s colorful bursts of action — bringing back lovely memories of his “Kingsman” days — are the only elements of “Argylle” that sustain interest. The crazy camerawork, needle drops, and stunts shine with an energy sorely lacking in other departments. Even so, these sequences aren’t allowed to reach their full potential by PG-13 limitations.
More broadly, Vaughn’s decision to pull punches here extends to plot developments. There’s far too many instances of characters explaining backstory to each other, which viewers rarely get to see unfold. We’re just expected to take Vaughn and Fuchs’ words for it and go along for the ride; shoddy, sluggish storytelling makes that a difficult mission to accomplish.
“Argylle,” then, seems at odds with itself. This could have been a fun spoof on the spy genre if Vaughn and company had the freedom to embrace their strengths and not aim for sanitized zaniness that comes awfully close to insulting viewers’ intelligence. Several entertaining scenes aside, “Argylle” needs to find a new objective.
“Argylle” is a 2024 action-thriller directed by Matthew Vaughn and starring Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, John Cena, Ariana DeBose, Dua Lipa, Samuel L. Jackson, Sofia Boutella, Richard E. Grant, Rob Delaney and Catherine O’Hara. It is Rated PG-13 for strong violence and action and some strong language and the run-time is 2 hours, 19 minutes. It opens Feb. 2 in local theatres. Alex’s Grade: C
Alex McPherson is an unabashed pop culture nerd and a member of the St. Louis Film Critics Association.