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Argylle review: a lackluster, cartoonish spy comedy

Bryce Dallas Howard stands behind a gun-wielding Sam Rockwell in Argylle.
“Argylle has all the necessary ingredients to be a fun, dumb spy comedy, but director Matthew Vaughn proves shockingly unable to pull it all off.”
Pros
  • Sam Rockwell and Bryan Cranston's pitch-perfect, scene-chewing performances
  • Several admirably goofy action sequences
Cons
  • An overly twisty, in-your-face script
  • Bad CGI and digital backdrops that look like they were generated in the early 2000s
  • Matthew Vaughn's formulaic direction

It’s easy to see what Matthew Vaughn was going for with Argylle because he’s already done it several times. The film is a candy-colored exercise in pop absurdism that, in its most outrageous moments, inevitably calls to mind Vaughn’s Kingsman movies, each of which has ranged from slickly entertaining (2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service) to irritatingly self-satisfied (2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and disappointingly stale (2021’s The King’s Man). It bears many of the same hallmarks as those movies, including sequences in which its characters nonchalantly kill their enemies while flagrantly ignoring all laws of physics. Despite the precedent set by his Kingsman movies, Argylle gradually emerges as Vaughn’s most outwardly cartoonish effort to date.

It’s the silliest film he has ever made by a long shot. That fact becomes clear long before Argylle has reached any of its jaw-droppingly ridiculous climactic fights, some of which make the famously head-exploding third act of Kingsman: The Secret Service seem tame in comparison. Unfortunately, what could have been a pleasingly Frankensteinian hybrid of a Looney Tunes cartoon, James Bond movie, and Nancy Meyers-inspired rom-com is instead rendered one-note and dull by an obtrusively convoluted plot and shockingly lazy, formulaic filmmaking.

Henry Cavill, Dua Lipa, and John Cena sit around a table together in Argylle.
Peter Mountain / Universal Pictures

Argylle begins, as it should, in the middle of a fantasy. Its prologue follows Aubrey Argylle (The Witcher‘s Henry Cavill), a handsome and capable spy, as he dances with and then pursues a dangerous blonde seductress, LaGrange (played briefly but memorably by Dua Lipa), across rooftops and through Grecian streets. When he and his right-hand man, Wyatt (an underutilized John Cena), eventually catch up with her, the trio exchanges lines of dialogue that feel ripped right out of the pages of a cheesy spy novel. Through the film’s only effective digital transition, Vaughn reveals that’s because they are.

As the director zooms in on Cavill’s lips, Agent Argylle’s voice is replaced by that of his creator, author Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), who promptly finishes reading an excerpt from the latest installment in her popular Argylle series. The film’s opening chase sequence, it turns out, was nothing more than a chapter from Elly’s most recent book, and the minutes that follow offer a glimpse into her quiet, isolated life with her sole companion, a cat named Alfie. However, when Elly boards a train the next day to visit her mother, Ruth (Catherine O’Hara), her journey is disrupted by Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a rough-and-ready spy who saves her from being captured by a dozen nefarious secret agents.

After Aidan whisks Elly away to a remote safe house, he explains that the events of her spy novels have been so inexplicably prescient that she’s become a target of the Division, an evil organization run by the slimy Ritter (a scene-chewing Bryan Cranston). She and Aidan are subsequently forced to team up with Alfred Solomon (Secret Invasion‘s Samuel L. Jackson), an honorable former CIA director, to take down the Division before it can successfully cover up all of its many global crimes. Plenty of chaotic chases, confrontations, and set pieces follow, most of which lack the kind of finesse that viewers have come to expect from Vaughn, who seems to be operating on autopilot for much of the film.

Bryan Cranston holds a shotgun in Argylle.
Peter Mountain / Universal Pictures

For the most part, Argylle’s action scenes fall short of Vaughn’s own undeniably high standards. Nearly all of them are accompanied by superfluous pop songs that, combined with the film’s poor, streaming-service quality lighting and distractingly bad CGI, make them more grating than enjoyable or thrilling. Two last-minute fights in the Division’s headquarters are far more effective than all those that come before them, but Argylle‘s numerous narrative missteps make it difficult to fully delight in the sheer goofiness of the scenes in question.

The film, thankfully, doesn’t take itself too seriously, but Jason Fuchs’ script tries so hard to constantly shock you that Argylle’s preposterously staged final set pieces feel out of place in a movie that is never as fun as their inclusion suggests. Several of its second-act twists work surprisingly well, but the film never stops trying to top itself by throwing out one subversive swerve after another until its runtime has reached a bloated 139 minutes, and its initial cleverness has begun to resemble desperation. It’s a movie that forces viewers to completely suspend their sense of disbelief but keeps getting lost in the minutiae of its own story — demanding that you simultaneously engage with its plot and ignore its illogical aspects.

Bryce Dallas Howard stands next to Samuel L. Jackson in Argylle.
Peter Mountain / Universal Pictures

The film’s cast tries valiantly to lift it up despite its flaws. Rockwell, Cranston, and O’Hara, in particular, bring so much casual charisma to their performances that Argylle is able to accrue a certain amount of goodwill early on. It, unfortunately, squanders it the same way that it does the talent of many of its performers, including Cavill, who is given what amounts to little more than an extended cameo role here, and Howard, who tries desperately to sell everything that’s asked of her. The movie never allows Elly to grow into anything more than a plot device because it only knows how to do one thing.

It’s the blockbuster equivalent of a novel that ends every sentence with an exclamation point, and by the time Vaughn has set Argylle’s final action sequence to yet another generic pop song, you’re already exhausted and annoyed enough to want to just put it down.

Argylle is now playing in theaters.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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