A jet-setting, action-packed, espionage comedy shouldn’t be this boring. “Argylle,” from director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jason Fuchs, boasts a vast array of beautiful and talented people, displays clever fight choreography, and occupies a constantly twisting narrative…yet none of it does much to elicit more than a chuckle or half smirk. Vaughn has all the pieces gathered together, but the resulting movie is a tedious over-long slog that never truly engages or seemingly knows what it wants to be. There are a couple of genuinely good, standout sequences that suggest what could have been had a different tone or approach been employed, but mostly it’s a muddled mess that overstays its welcome and is never half as clever as it thinks it is.
Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) has just finished writing the fifth installment in her successful book series about a spy named “Argylle” (played in fantasy sequences and re-enactments by Henry Cavill), but she’s not entirely sure about the ending or what happens next in the story. Her quiet writerly life is interrupted by Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a real-life covert operative who informs Elly that the “Argylle” series has angered shadowy espionage organization The Division, as she has inadvertently gotten too close to the truth about certain international actions. Aiden tasks Elly (and Elly’s cat, Alfie, unfortunately along for the ride) with guiding him through the rest of the tale in order to arrive at the necessary intel before The Division gets there, led by Ritter (Bryan Cranston). But it’s a spy story, so there’s layers of truth and lies and revelations and double-crosses and much more along the way…all while the meek Elly is accompanied by her fictional hero to navigate the mess.
Vaughn’s “Kingsman” movies are probably the best touchstone for “Argylle.” This film shares a lot with those titles, particularly the filmmaker’s attempt to walk a line between the badass and the ridiculous. “Ridiculous” is probably not fair—over-the-top is more accurate, with a campy sense of style that evokes the reality-defiance of ‘70s Bond or “Danger: Diabolik.” While it is an admirable goal to meld these two sensibilities, it seems to be one that Vaughn is increasingly incapable of attaining in each of his attempts. The fight choreography (by Guillermo Grispo of “Kingsman” movies, along with “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”) has some impressive hard-hitting moments, but then that’s abutted against the wacky imagery of Alfie in his cat-holder as the group parachutes from a moving train (for example). It’s meant to evoke that sort of shot-chaser relationship of action and fun, but it ends up making the fight sequences feel lightweight and the comedy feel far too silly.
There is a sequence late in the (far too-long at 140 minutes) film that manages to combine action and camp with tremendous style that is very entertaining, funny, and inventive. But then “Argylle” follows it up with another attempt at such a sequence not 10 minutes later, feeling much less like an escalation of hyperreality and more just like a hat on a hat. It’s just too much too soon after too many sequences without that hard-to-define flair that is needed. As noted, it’s a difficult line to walk between these two worlds and it requires a certain indefinable swagger to make them gel in a way that is sustainable. “Argylle” doesn’t have that swagger.
It does boast good performances from all the cast members—including Catherine O’Hara, John Cena, Samuel L. Jackson, and Dua Lipa. Howard is a great audience surrogate as the wide-eyed yet capable Elly, before all the twists and turns began to come fast and loose from Fuchs’ script. It’s inevitable for there to be reveals and surprises in these types of movies, but there’s just too many deployed too sloppily to make them land with any impact—even if the impact should be a campy melodramatic moment, it just falls flat. Rockwell is the MVP, though, as his character is pretty consistently charming and funny throughout, even if saddled with some crap dialogue here and there. But his presence on the screen brings a much-needed energy (often in the form of a dance move or two) that helps make the languid scenes have some form of a pulse.
One of the gimmicks of “Argylle,” which could be found in other movies like 1984’s “Cloak & Dagger,” is that Elly is “aided” by the apparition of her fictitious creation, Agent Argylle, who sometimes takes the place of Aidan in the action as Elly is witnessing it. This conceit is trotted out twice and then awkwardly resolved in a way that makes no actual sense. But the two action sequences in which it is employed boast impressive editing and fight choreography, to match so well what Rockwell is doing with what Cavill does, but again it’s just a half-smirk of clever. That is kind of “Argylle” in a nutshell. It is impressive from a technical standpoint, viewers can appreciate what is being attempted, it has some level of charm to it—but ultimately it’s not entertaining enough to land with true impact.
“Argylle” isn’t terrible, it’s just awkward. It is full of too many convoluted plot twists but also very predictable at the same time. It tries to do grounded action, but also wants it to be a fanciful approach to such violence. It requires audiences be invested in the characters and their relationships, but also narratively puts them at a distance in service of those twists. The key to this movie, I think, is Alfie. The cat. Who is present for the vast majority of the story’s plot. In a better version of “Argylle” that cat would actually be a character—not a major one, but you’d get a sense of its personality and in fact could predict how it would act based on who it is, not narrative necessity. Instead, the CGI furball is there for reaction shots, some forced plotting, and one (1) truly earned joke. “Argylle” has a great cast, idea, and spirit, but is totally unable to transform that into something more than the fairly boring sum of its parts.