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Argylle Review: A Lengthy And Overstuffed Caper From Matthew Vaughn

  • Sam Rockwell does what he does best (dancing)
  • Some of the action is entertaining
  • Too long
  • Nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is

When "Argylle" was first announced, it was a project enshrouded in a fascinating bit of mystery. The film was said to be an adaptation of an as-yet-unpublished novel penned by unknown writer Elly Conway. Apple intended it to be the start of a franchise and its first real foray into blockbuster filmmaking, with "Kingsman" helmer Matthew Vaughn at the helm and insisting this particular slice of spy-fi would be worlds apart from his work on that other series. But now that the finished film has arrived, it's clear that so much gimmickry was baked into the production solely for misdirection. Unfortunately, those tactics were merely employed to hide how unspectacular the entire affair has turned out.

The initial trailer poked holes in popular fan theories suggesting that "Elly Conway" was a pen name for some famous scribe temporarily slumming it in the action genre, like J.K. Rowling or Taylor Swift. Elly, played by Bryce Dallas Howard in the film, is a novelist who writes books about Agent Argylle, a dashing if curiously coiffed Nehru jacket-wearing super-spy played by Henry Cavill in scenes pulled from her fictionalized work. The film's central mystery surrounds her fictional stories, the real-life events in the world of espionage they seem to have predicted, and who the real Agent Argylle is. Unfortunately, for all the film's semi-thrilling action set pieces and numerous twists and turns, the answers to its many questions are far from satisfying.

Cinematic subterfuge

At its best, "Argylle" calls to mind swashbuckling romances like "Romancing The Stone" and "Jewel of the Nile," teaming Howard's Elly with real-life spy Aidan, played by a reliably charismatic Sam Rockwell. After a chance meeting on a train, he is presented as both a quirky and "realistic" counterpoint to Elly's fanciful hero, as well as her entry point into the dangerous world she has heretofore only written about. There's a big, messy plot about how her needing to complete her new book is connected to the rogue spy syndicate headed by Bryan Cranston's nefarious Ritter.

The movie is its most engaging when it focuses on the chemistry between Howard and Rockwell, mining comedy from her fish-out-of-water antics and his unpredictable presence. When it's firing on all cylinders as an off-kilter romcom, Matthew Vaughn seems to be making good on his promise that "Argylle" would be similar to the "Kingsman" films in genre only. But the more narrative detritus that gets piled on and the more he cavalierly revisits the style and tone of those pictures, it becomes harder to see this as anything other than a slight retread gussied up in tricks to pretend it's something it's not.

That level of subterfuge may be fine for a government operative going undercover in the pursuit of national security, but it's less fun to watch a movie masquerading as a better movie that doesn't really exist. There's entertaining work from Catherine O'Hara as Elly's mother, an eclectic cadre of soulful needle drops, and some truly humorous time spent with Cavill and John Cena from inside the fictional exploits of Elly's books. It's just that the movie's few strengths are all elaborate feints designed to keep the audience guessing about the next big reveal or twist, leaving little to actually hold onto or care about. 

The cat is out of the bag

During this film's bloated, 135-minute runtime, there's roughly 15 minutes of the cheeky, self-aware spy thriller starring Cavill and Cena that comprises Elly's fictional work. Though it features prominently in the film's marketing materials, that is little more than a ruse to hide the true nature of "Argylle," a piece of duplicity that would be more impressive if the con it performs on the viewer yielded a finished product better than advertised. This is, above all else, a movie that prominently features a pet cat in a backpack that exists for the sole purpose of a tagline on a poster.

Instead, the heightened, exaggerated world of "real" spies Elly finds herself thrust into proves to be just as cartoonish and strange as the made-up one inside her head. The film's central twist explains that away simply enough, but it's a reveal that feels hollow in its execution. At its core, "Argylle" is little more than one semi-decent twist idea stacked upon a foundation that is just a faulty Jenga tower of other less-decent twist ideas, with almost nothing of substance, emotional or otherwise, to make the viewer care through any of it. 

There's absolutely nothing wrong with an effervescent romp that plays fast and loose with audience expectations to entertain the masses. But "Argylle" isn't funny enough to succeed as a comedy. Its action is too plasticine and ugly to be as stylish as it hopes. And the game of cat and mouse surrounding its mysteries proves more and more groan-worthy the longer the film runs. By the mid-credits scene revealing yet another underwhelming wrinkle about this new franchise's true nature, all "Argylle" really has going for it is the sheer audacity to think anyone would walk out of this picture hoping for more of the same at some later date.