It’s been said time and time again that great writers simply write what they know. If we extend the old adage to screenwriter Jason Fuchs, who penned Matthew Vaughn’s latest, Argylle, then we’re left to assume that all he knows is spy movie clichés. At minimum the basic ideas of “plot” and “character” may be completely foreign.
At its core, Argylle is meant to be a fun meta action thriller and a comedic quasi-sendup of the espionage genre. In fact, the underlying mystery — if you can call it that — sort of revolves around that simple bit of creative advice mentioned above. The problem is that Vaughn and Fuchs seem to be so far up their own asses with what they believe is their own cleverness that they appear to have forgotten that crucial “fun” aspect. As such, we’re left with a tame, plodding, and toothless adventure that shows brief hints of what might have been while drowning in its own laziness, mediocrity, and brand-integrated marketing.
The story revolves around Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), an introverted and socially awkward novelist who has gained massive success with the Argylle series of spy books. The film begins with a dramatization of her latest work, where the titular agent (Henry Cavill), tracks down his target, LaGrange (Dua Lipa, here solely to look good in a low-cut dress; spoiler, Howard looks way better when she dons the same outfit in the third act), who pulls a double-cross and makes an escape attempt. She’s foiled by Argylle, along with his partners Wyatt (John Cena) and Keira (Ariana DeBose), before LaGrange reveals the twist that she was hired by Argylle’s own agency, the Directorate (or some such other stupid name) to take him out, taking her own life while the head of the agency (Richard E. Grant) assures him it’s all a lie.
We then cut to Elly reading this high-octane scene to an adoring crowd at a bookstore, where she’s sitting in for a signing and a Q&A. Why go through this rigmarole, you might ask? Well because Vaughn really isn’t that concerned about making this a good movie. He’s much more interested in expanding his Kingsman franchise. This has been part of the process since the trailer for this project was released back in September. The film was announced as being an adaptation of a novel from an exciting debut author called Elly Conway, whom no one had heard about. Speculation ran wild that the “real” Elly was somehow Taylor Swift. Anyway, now that the film is out, writers Terry Hayes and Tammy Cohen have revealed that they did the tie-in book, and the insulting mid-credits scene plugs an upcoming film based on said tie-in, which of course does loop back to Kingsman.
So from the moment this movie was conceived, it was a viral marketing gimmick. And once you understand that, a lot of the pieces fall into place, including the slew of product placements throughout (one scene literally has a car speed up to the camera in a puff of smoke that dissipates to reveal the Ford Mustang emblem, for example), and the fact that Apple bought the distribution rights (and I’m sure insisted on the multiple lines about how Keira was going to be “the next Steve Jobs” thanks to her genius).
Because of this, what was presented to us as some grand spy thriller and action mystery with some comedy thrown in, is actually meaningless pulp, which of course gives lie to the idea that people would be crowding book stores to talk to Elly as if she was Stephen King or J.K. Rowling pre-cancellation. Everything we see in the intro just screams that it was hastily thrown together by an AI told to make a James Bond ripoff (including the “We’re not so different” trope that may be my most hated of all time), filled with shamefully bad CGI. And honestly, I’m okay with pulp, if that’s what you’re selling. But the stories we see in Conway’s books — and this film by extension — are sold as if they’re stylized masterpieces and new spins on the formula, which they very much are not.
The parade of tired beats continues into the main plot. Elly — sitting with her cat Alfie that she mainly keeps in a backpack (sometimes it’s a real cat but most of the time it’s lame CG) — has just finished her fifth book, where Agent Argylle is about to expose his puppet masters for good, but she ends the manuscript on a cliffhanger, which her mother (Catherine O’Hara) calls a copout, heavily encouraging her to get back on the computer and write another chapter to wrap things up. Elly decides to surprise her parents in Chicago with a visit to get some inspiration, and on the way she is accosted on the train by a man named Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who claims that he’s a real spy, and that everything Elly writes in her books actually happened. There’s a real “Division” run by a man named Ritter (Bryan Cranston), and he’s hunting her down in order to get her to finish her next book, as there’s a “Master Key” that could bring down the entire operation if Argylle finds it.
To the attentive reader, or the attentive viewer who’s undoubtedly seen the trailer multiple times over the last four months, or to anyone who hasn’t suffered a severe brain injury, I have already given you every piece of information you need to solve the “puzzle” (air quotes) of this movie. We don’t even need the big dramatic reveal from Samuel L. Jackson as to who the “real” Argylle is. Deep down, you already know, and the fact that we have to proceed as if there’s suspense is a symptom of the disease that infects the entire movie. Literally every plot point, every story turn, every so-called “twist” is so obviously telegraphed and patently stupid that a child could come up with it, assuming they aren’t enraptured by the slew of spy movie catchphrases in the dialogue, which they would likely be hearing for the first time. As for the rest of us, we’re just sitting there flipping off the screen when one of the good guys is about to be killed and one of the bad guys commands, “Finish him!” like it’s fucking Mortal Kombat.
This could still have worked, mind you, if Vaughn did two things. One, you have to pick a lane on the story’s tone. Either fully lean in to the absurdity and silliness, or give us some actual stakes. We never even learn who any of these people work for. What is the threat posed by the Division? What’s their diabolical scheme? If they’re so powerful, what does it matter if they’re exposed? Why would Rockwell call Jackson in secret and tell him that he wants to “put a bullet in Elly Conway’s head” when he knows the truth about her and that such a statement would be so easily misconstrued? You can’t have these legitimate genre conventions (at least they’re legitimate when handled by more capable creators) while at the same time commenting on the convenience of a metal beam that blocks the door to a roof where you’ve never been before. It’s one or the other, not both. Remember how awesome it was when Samuel L. Jackson shot Colin Firth in the first Kingsman flick, literally saying it wasn’t “that kind of movie” where the villain exposits his plan, giving the hero time to escape? That was freaking epic! It was also 10 years ago, and now Vaughn and Fuchs are literally writing monologues into these very scenes instead of just pulling the trigger.
Two, if we had some of that sweet, sweet, trademark Matthew Vaughn ultraviolence, we could still have a blast with the bonkers fight choreography and gore. Unfortunately, this is a neutered PG-13 affair, so we can’t have any of that glorious action, and when one of his patented fight scenes is de-fanged, my god does it look lame. The combination of shitty CGI, super jump cut editing, and not even enough viscera to tell which henchmen are dead or alive just makes for an experience that’s beyond boring. There are a few hints here and there of the magic that Vaughn can craft in these situations — Rockwell’s first fight on the train and a climactic display of colorful smoke in the finale — but they’re just reminders of what we could be seeing instead of this.
The only real point the film has in its favor are the performances. The A-list cast knows they’ve got an absolute dud on their hands, filled with more nonsensical deus ex machinas than you can shake a stick at, and enough slow-motion shots to make Zack Snyder cum in his pants. So what do they do? They play it all as intensely as humanly possible, almost willing it to be exciting. Cranston and Rockwell in particular chew scenery like it’s fine dining, giving the viewer a few ironic laughs in spite of themselves.
But that’s not enough to save a film that tells you right upfront why it doesn’t work. When Aidan first meets Elly on the train, he tells her that he’s a fan of her work, but when he reveals he’s a secret agent, he offers some constructive criticism. The only thing she gets wrong, he says, is the character of Argylle himself, as a roguishly handsome Adonis with “a bespoke Nehru jacket and a stupid haircut” doesn’t exactly blend into his surroundings. That’s a note of actual value when you’re parodying this genre. Unfortunately, the film refuses to commit to that idea, continually going out of its way to be just as unbelievable as James Bond, while still expecting us to take it all at face value and literally buy into not just this adventure, but every one to come. And frankly, I have better things to do with my time and money.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What do you think of using movies to advertise other media? Regardless of the quality of its use in the story, just how cute is the freaking cat? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!