Sam Rockwell probably isn’t anyone’s idea of a suave secret agent, but that seems to be just the point for director Matthew Vaughn. He cast the Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Oscar winner against type and let him rip with a witty, eminently watchable performance that lets him steal every scene he is in.
If only the movie, Argylle, were a star vehicle for him in the same way that, say, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest was for Cary Grant in its day, this pseudo spy thriller might have been a classic. But unfortunately too much of it, especially the final half hour of this two-hour-plus frenetic action picture, just throws it all against the wall to see what sticks. It will have your head spinning trying to keep up with a far-too-busy set of characters playing mind games with us in a twisted scenario that spins out of control and wears out its welcome despite the efforts of Rockwell to ground it and a promising, original premise that just never feels completely fulfilled. Watch a trailer below.
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The picture actually opens with a sequence that looks like it is right out of a Bond movie as we meet suave spy Argylle (Henry Cavill), his bestie Wyatt (John Cena) and alluring blonde Lagrange (Dua Lipa) as they get caught up in a cat-and-mouse game in slick, luxurious surroundings that all build to a dance to the death. This all seems typical Vaughn territory for his brand of action cemented in movies like the Kingsman franchise and Kick-Ass. But it all comes into focus when we cut to the real, instead of reel, world and meet author Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is turning out her fifth edition in her Argylle spy novel series, and clearly what we saw before is all coming from her mind. Her world is staying at home with her perfect “date,” Alfie, who happens to be the cute cat she takes everywhere in a see-thru backpack.
When her mother/self-appointed editor Ruth (Catherine O’Hara) criticizes her latest manuscript, Elly reluctantly agrees to let her mom come for the weekend to offer tips. But the tables get turned, and she decides to travel to mom’s house instead, taking a train ride that quickly becomes terrifying as characters from her books become entwined with real-life spies working for an organization called The Division. It is run by the evil Ritter (Bryan Cranston), who is bound and determined to retrieve an urgent file and discovers the only way to get it is through Elly, who has uncannily clairvoyant powers in unwittingly matching her own spy plots to this real group who will stop at nothing to capture her.
Fortunately, a disheveled and bearded Aidan (Rockwell) sits with her on the train and realizes she is the author of his favorite spy novels, but then he has a surprise up his sleeve as it is revealed he is a secret agent who might be her only ticket out of danger. The pair embark, with Alfie in tow (not a good thing for the cat-allergic Aidan), as she sees her fictional world increasingly caught up in the very dangerous real world of bad guys up to no good.
This, folks, is just the setup for a story that keeps switching identities by thrusting Elly into more intrigue than she can handle, including the odd-couple relationship with Aidan. Beware: This is a plot full of characters who might not be who they seem at first, and Vaughn and his screenwriter Jason Fuchs don’t seem to care if any of the ever-twisting turns of their story make coherent sense because the key is just to keep this thing moving along.
That it works at all is due to a game cast who signed up for insane plot detours and manage to keep it all straight. Howard is the main character, and you can see why she was attracted to the role that allows her to show many colors from sly author to damsel in distress to someone who might hold a dark secret. She is fun in the role. Teaming with Rockwell is a blessing because he plays off her with rat-a-tat skill in delivering all the film’s best lines with such style that you hope Vaughn finds a way to spin him off into his own movie.
He is a blast here and the best reason to hit the multiplex to see this film, which is the third Apple movie in recent months to get into business with a Hollywood studio to go theatrical before it begins its streaming life on Apple TV +. That is admirable because this kind of big-budget escapism belongs on the largest screens around. And despite its shortcomings in the genre, Argylle is a step up from Apple’s earlier Ghosted with Chris Evans, which started well but quickly sped downhill dissolving into nonsensical action set pieces, but far below Apple’s superior and underrated Tetris, on which Vaughn was a producer.
Cranston seems to be enjoying playing a Bond-style villain for a change, but the character doesn’t always make a lot of sense. The same goes for the always-welcome O’Hara. Samuel L. Jackson as a legendary CIA agent and Sofia Boutella struggle to make their roles meatier here. Cavill, Cena, Lipa and others in the fictional world of Elly including Ariana DeBose and Richard E. Grant are not given much to do except appear and reappear in quick flashes that just get lost in this puzzle. Vaughn and Fuchs never quite figure out how to make the clever idea come to fruition. Fortunately we can count on frequent cutaways to the adorable Chip, who nails the role of the cat, even if there was some nepo-baby chicanery in the casting process. It turns out Chip is the real-life cat of Vaughn’s wife, model Claudia Vaughn née Schiffer.
Shout out to Lorne Balfe’s terrific and atmospheric musical score, as well as all production credits that succeed in making this Apple Original Films production look swell as it hops the globe.
Producers are Vaughn, Fuchs, David Reid and Adam Bohling.
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release date: February 2, 2024
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Jason Fuchs
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Catherine O’Hara, Henry Cavill, Sofia Boutella, Dua Lipa, Ariana Debose, John Cena, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard E. Grant, Chip
Running time: 2 hr, 19 min