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‘Argylle’ Review: It’s Tough Keeping Track of Which Way’s Up in Matthew Vaughn’s Catawampus Spy Comedy

What looks like diamonds but on closer inspection turns out to be little more than reams of cheap polyester? Why, argyle, of course — that preppy pattern found on socks and sweaters, and an apt name for the latest kooky spy caper from Matthew Vaughn. The erstwhile “Kick-Ass” director has been trapped in “Kingsman” mode for so long (going on a decade now) that it feels like we’ve lost him to that kind of live-action cartoon forever, cramming Gen Z James Bond riffs with disco music and outrageous greenscreen shenanigans.

“Argylle” boasts an entirely new set of characters, but sticks to Vaughn’s CG-exaggerated aesthetic as hacky spy novelist Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) gets pulled into a scheme nearly identical to the one she described in her bestselling series of books. She invented a character called Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill, looking silly in a stuffed Nehru jacket and sky-high hairdo) who’s uncovered a secret division of rogue agents, creatively named the Division. That plot is so close to reality — or the movie’s catawampus version of reality — that actual rogue agents come out of the woodwork to eliminate Elly.

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If the broad strokes of Jason Fuchs’ script seem to have been borrowed outright from such pulp-flavored adventure movies as “The Lost City” and “Romancing the Stone,” or else spy-memoir satires “Hopscotch” and “Burn After Reading,” that doesn’t negate the fact that they provide a reasonably fun way for Vaughn to place a female protagonist in the middle of a typically testosterone-heavy genre. (There were women in his Kingsman movies, but it remained mostly a guy’s game.) Here, Howard appears front and center, and though the “Jurassic World” star is technically a nepo baby, she reads as a relatable Everywoman in this context: the right choice to play a redheaded writer who’d rather cozy up with her Scottish Fold cat, Alfie, than do anything remotely dangerous.

The movie opens with a set-piece from Elly’s latest Argylle book, flamboyantly staged to Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” and featuring jaunty cameos from Dua Lipa, Ariana DeBose and John Cena — collectively too arch to be believed. Vaughn wants audiences to suspect the artifice and get a laugh out of the clunky clichés being served up and subverted, while innocuously planting seeds that will pay off later in the movie. The scene turns out to be a book reading, where avid fans demand to know when the next installment is due. Except, Elly doesn’t know how to finish the story.

Stuffing Alfie in a travel-cat backpack and booking a ticket to meet her mom (a hilarious Catherine O’Hara, whose comic instincts strike just the right note), Elly discovers that practically every other passenger on the train wants to kill her. Everyone but Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a shaggy-looking bum who identifies himself as a spy and proceeds to dispatch the dozens of would-be assassins on board. Looks — like practically everything else in this movie — can be deceiving. In a neat trick, Vaughn shoots the sequence from Elly’s perspective, cutting back and forth between Argylle and Aidan. Could this uncouth stranger be the inspiration for her dapper character? Is real-world spycraft so different from what she imagined?

The scene ends with an ultra-fake parachute escape, so visually unconvincing it stands in stark contrast with Tom Cruise’s latest “Mission: Impossible” outing. Where that franchise strives for astonishing in-camera stuntwork, “Argylle” is all about artifice, taking the trust-no-one (not even your own eyes) strategy to absurd extremes. Vaughn delights in letting audiences think they know where things are going, only to blindside them with a fresh twist every few minutes. The most effective one involves Bryan Cranston, who first appears as evil Division head Ritter, only to make a second entrance later as an entirely different character.

Rockwell gets more screen time, striking up a scruffy screwball comedy dynamic with Howard’s character. Elly’s understandably uncomfortable watching Aidan shoot entire squads of heavily armed henchmen, while he patiently instructs her on how to stomp their heads once they’ve fallen. The film’s irreverent attitude toward violence is totally consistent with Vaughn’s style, only less extreme. Where every other entry in his oeuvre (except “Stardust”) has been rated R, “Argylle” registers a relatively tame PG-13. There are no exploding noggins or adversaries fed into a meat grinder here. In fact, hardly any blood is shed on-screen until the big figure-skating finale — a Looney Tunes fight scene in which audiences will be too distracted by the wild blades-of-glory choreography to take much notice of the brief bit of gore.

If Vaughn’s goal was to serve a younger crowd this time around, he does so without alienating his adult fans. At 160 seconds, the film’s ridiculous trailer gives a reasonable idea of what to expect. But that off-putting amuse bouche leaves out how the human brain starts to adjust to such a kitschy approach when immersed in it for nearly as many minutes (in what’s becoming an exhausting norm among Apple co-productions, “Argylle” runs well over two hours).

While common sense and good taste may resist Vaughn’s garishly over-the-top style at first, this tacky undertaking eventually finds its groove — right around the scene where Howard and Rockwell erupt from a bunker beneath a Barbie-pink smokescreen, leaving a trail of heart-shaped sparks in their wake. When Aidan first appears, it’s hard to imagine him becoming a love interest. But after surviving a number of near-death experiences, he and Elly start to feel kind of cute together.

Although Elly begins the adventure in damsel-in-distress mode, she soon shows how sharp her mind is for all things espionage-related. After all, to be such a successful author, she must know her subject. Instead of squandering that aptitude, the movie treats her as an action hero too. The problem is, she’s stuck in a badly written spy comedy, no better than the clumsy one we hear her reading from in the opening scene, with its corny one-liners and triple-cross twists. Tempting as it may be to tune out early, stay through the credits for one last clincher — that is, assuming the pattern hasn’t already left your eyes irreparably crossed.

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