Genre: Action Comedy and Spy Running Time: 2 hrs. 19 min.
Release Date: February 2nd, 2024 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Matthew Vaughn Actors: Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Henry Cavill, Bryan Cranston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cena, Ariana DeBose, Catherine O’Hara, Dua Lipa
espite writing numerous wildly popular spy novels, replete with dashing agents, nefarious espionage circles, and gravity-defying action, Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) leads a reclusive, lonely life behind her computer screen, tapping out prose on her keyboard as rapidly as her characters empty their gun clips. Stumbling into a bout of writer’s block for the conclusion to the manuscript of her fifth novel, Elly decides to head to Chicago to visit her parents. On the train ride there, however, she is confronted by a real spy, Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell), who is everything her fictional protagonists are not – uncouth, unkempt, and unstylish. But when a rogue spy outfit, not unlike the shadowy syndicate from her own books, begins sending hired killers to dispatch Elly, she must cast her distrust of Aidan aside if she wants to live long enough to uncover the truth behind her desperate situation.
After opening with a more elaborate version of the introduction to “Romancing the Stone” (and “The Lost City,” which copied that), but with outrageously over-the-top CG additives, “Argylle” proceeds to borrow basic concepts from the “Mission: Impossible” series. Nothing about the onset is original, though it’s undoubtedly engaging to see James Bond hopeful Cavill team up with fellow look-the-part secret agents for adventurous shenanigans – and a deadly dance with impressively costumed femme fatale Dua Lipa. The ensemble casting is essentially this picture’s greatest strength. “That is what I would say if I was a real spy.”
Problematically, lead star Howard isn’t convincing as a down-to-earth novelist and hopeless romantic (a single writer’s block sequence is somewhat more manageable), nor is she believable as a hapless innocent dragged into a high-stakes game of tradecraft. So when she vacillates between these identities, which also shift in and out of reality and fantasy, it hardly matters which role is more authentic. Frequent first-person camerawork and boundlessly-choreographed action scenes further add to the jarring nature of watching her struggle with her selfhood; large swathes of the picture feel like video game footage.
“This isn’t happening!” “Argylle” utilizes an unreliable narrator, cheating a bit with its perspective (the initial sequences clearly place the audience within Elly’s viewpoint), which tends to suggest, later on, that nothing is what it seems. Unlike a standard spy flick, in which the idea of trusting no one is befitting, the specific betrayal of having Elly’s mental view present inconsistencies is essentially unforgivable; as the story progresses, it’s increasingly difficult to care about the success or failures of the protagonists when it’s been shown that visual information isn’t always factual (characters lying to one another is fine; characters lying to the audience is something else entirely). Spilling into this distrust is the overabundance of comic relief, heartily supplied by every character, including the villains. It doesn’t matter how lighthearted or insincere Elly and Aidan might be; if no one treats any scenario with seriousness, then audiences aren’t likely to either. “Argylle” needs to make up its mind whether it’s set in a cartoonish fantasy or operating in a semi-realistic world of covert organizations and elite assassins. Without limits on the flightiness, it often borders on pure spoof, like “Spy Hard” and “Wrongfully Accused.”
“That was convenient!” At several points, one would be forgiven in hoping that the preceding sequences would reveal that everything is a dream; explanations would be easier to digest if the farfetchedness wasn’t so extreme. As it borrows liberally from other spy movies (and director Matthew Vaughn’s own “Kingsman” series, which strains over the same balancing act between action and comedy), refusing to craft any sense of originality, “Argylle” also lifts conspicuous notes from “No Way Out,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” It continues to grow weirder and sillier, accelerating its insistence on existing in a realm firmly outside reality, despite pretending to be a movie about skilled saboteurs and undercover operatives in life-and-death conflicts. Killing and torture and brainwashing have little effect on these broadly-drawn stereotypes, while flashbacks to mere seconds prior seem to taunt viewers with the impression that they’re abnormally forgetful, requiring extra prodding to understand pitiful cliches. Just when it seems as if it can’t get any stupider, it absolutely does.
– The Massie Twins