Matthew Vaughn returns to the world of espionage with Argylle but unfortunately, the movie prioritizes plot twists at the expense of everything else.
Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Elly Conway, the successful but reclusive author of the Argylle series of espionage action novels. While her books have had an incredible degree of realism as far as real-life events, her upcoming fifth book seemingly hits on something too close to comfort for an actual evil spy organization called The Division, who dispatch agents to kidnap Elly. She’s rescued by Adrian Wilde (Sam Rockwell), a former Division agent who has gone rogue and believes that Elly can help him retrieve the “Masterkey”, a file that will expose every agent in The Division and their various crimes. I, and probably a lot of people, thought that Argylle would be more similar to something like Romancing the Stone, where a normal author gets sucked into a real-life adventure that reflects her books. There’s a bit of that but Argylle is obsessed with plot twists, seemingly believing that this makes a movie interesting or fun. There is a lot of telling and not showing regarding characters, the movie will say someone is bad for example, without any organic build-up or interesting character development. That should have been especially true for the Sam Rockwell/Bryce Dallas Howard relationship, which starts with a bit of a fun bickering, Moonlighting style setup but several times the nature of their relationship is suddenly changed by one of the aforementioned plot twists in a sudden, jarring manner, so it’s impossible to get a handle on or care about them as characters. If you look back at Kingsman (the first movie), for instance, that movie had a great twisty spy plot but also took the time to develop the characters in satisfying ways, like the relationship between Eggsy and Harry Hart and it feels like since The Golden Circle, Vaughn has been unable to get the mix right. The Henry Cavill sections are also a lot less frequent than I think even a lot of people were expecting, mostly playing out at the beginning of the movie and then sporadically throughout. Cavill, along with John Cena, Ariana DeBose, and Dua Lipa, is within the world of the Argylle novels and there’s a brief tease of maybe some fun fourth wall breaking as Cavill’s Argylle responds to Elly’s writer’s block but it’s barely used and forgotten once the main plot kicks in.
One thing that has made Matthew Vaughn’s movies fun, like Kick-Ass or Kingsman is the mixture of over-the-top violence and a candy-coated, hyperrealistic style. Argylle has the former but is PG-13, so the violence is extremely sanitized and lacks any sort of bite. There are a few scenes that seem ripe for an R rating, like a scene that seems to be playing off The Transporter’s oil fight where everyone switches from guns to knives, but it’s all bloodless. The unrealistic style and tone work for the world within the Argylle novels, but as mentioned previously, there’s nowhere near enough of that stuff and I can definitely see why a lot of people might feel like there was a bait and switch when Cavill and the other book world characters were so heavily featured in the marketing. Some of the action is fun but nothing comes close to some of the peaks that we’ve seen from Matthew Vaughn.
Sam Rockwell basically carries this movie on his shoulders as the opposite of the suave superspy that Elly imagines Argylle to be, showing up looking like a homeless bum but quickly showing off his skills as a secret agent. Rockwell is funny throughout and pulls off the physicality of the action and some of his famous dance moves. Bryce Dallas Howard is fun as well but the plot twists suck away any interesting character development away as she gets revelations and character beats dumped on her instead of seeing them build up throughout the movie. Bryan Cranston is unable to be anything but great but he can play the character of the evil Division chief Ritter in his sleep and there’s nothing new or interesting about him. Catherine O’Hara is fun as Elly’s overbearing mother Ruth and some revelations later in the movie let her have some entertaining bits. The little we get of Cavill as Argylle shows off a world where he could have been James Bond and he nails the superspy suaveness and it just makes you wish that was the entire movie or at least have more of those sequences throughout.
Argylle has some fun stuff sprinkled throughout but everything like interesting character development is thrown away for constant plot twists and the PG-13 action saps away the visceral fun that we’ve gotten from almost every other previous Matthew Vaughn movie. It’s not a disaster but you can definitely wait until it comes to Apple TV+ later this year.