“The bigger the spy, the bigger the lie.”
It’s a saying that Matthew Vaughn’s spy comedy Argylle likes to repeat. It sounds kinda nifty, kinda slick, like something a femme fatale looking to seduce a James Bond-type might say to him. But it doesn’t really mean anything, regardless of how it might sound. And that’s pretty much Argylle in a nutshell. All of the window dressing, the sped-up action, the big stars, it all looks very cool and if you think about it for even half a second it’s just the stupidest damn movie that makes no sense.
The sad thing about Argylle is that it’s also too smug for its own good. Vaughn’s movies always bear his self-satisfied fingerprints; whether it’s the tonally-similar Kingsman films or even X-Men: First Class. You can practically see Vaughn patting himself on the back, as if he’s giving you something you’ve never seen before, but that’s not true because he’s been doing the same style of movie for years, dabbling in the same ironies, the same heightened setpieces at the same pace, and with many of the same stars.
Argylle is a spy movie, but that’s only the beginning. Bryce Dallas Howard plays anxious, cat-loving writer Elly Conway. Her series of Argylle novels is a smash hit with millions of loyal fans. Henry Cavill, sporting an unfortunate flat-top haircut, plays agent Argylle as Elly dreams up his missions to then put on the page. These scenes also feature pop star Dua Lipa as sexy villainess LaGrange, John Cena as Argylle’s partner Wyatt, and Ariana DeBose as Keira, the tech wiz of the team. The opening mission goes awry, but then we learn that this is all a fiction as Elly sorts out her latest novel. Her mother (Catherine O’Hara), is none too pleased about the ending. “It’s a cop out”, she says.
So Argylle is both a spy film and a writer’s block story, as Elly tries to work past her issues. Oh wait, it’s more than that, too, because there’s a Stranger Than Fiction-esque component that finds Elly’s stories affecting her reality. This is never more real than when she’s approached on the train by Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a cynical super spy who reads all of her Argylle books, and for good reason. Everything she writes about is a little too close to the truth for some folks in the espionage business, and they hope to use her predictive abilities for nefarious purposes. Don’t think about this too hard or your brain will crack it’s so dumb.
Vaughn is not an uncreative guy visually, and it’s impressive the way he shifts between reality and fantasy at the literal blink of Elly’s eyes, giving us both Cavill and Rockwell performing the same action sequences simultaneously. This nifty trick is also a problem, though, because we’re never quite sure what level the film is operating on. At times it wants us to take it seriously as an espionage caper, with the works of John Le Carre and others referenced throughout. But it also has that exaggerated Vaughn style where goofy things happen, like pretty much everything involving Elly’s cat Alfie, whom Aidan says he loves but appears deathly allergic to.
I love spy movies. For me, they are right up there with heist movies and assassin films as my all-time favorites. But the great thing about espionage, even in something silly like Kingsman, is exploring how deep the world of secret agents goes and how it reflects our world geopolitically. Argylle wants to have its cake and eat it, too; to be taken seriously and not at all. The ridiculous world Vaughn creates isn’t rich enough to succeed at either.
But Argylle shoots itself in the foot with a litany of twists supposedly meant to shock, but just leave you numb after a while. Characters played by Bryan Cranston, Samuel L. Jackson, Sofia Boutella, Rob Delaney, and more show up but none are who they appear to be. Some flip and then flip again, and when the “big” reveal happens involving a crucial lead character, and then another, you no longer have reason to care. Argylle is so pleased with itself over all of this nonsense, it’s like Vaughn just expects the audience to accept it and go with the flow because look at all of the fun casting and the CGI cat in a backpack! Isn’t that enough? Clocking in at an egregious 2 hours and 19 minutes, I’d say it’s about an hour too much.
Argylle opens in theaters on February 2nd.