Movie Review: Argylle

By: Andrew Warren  |  February 20, 2024

By Andrew Warren, Staff Writer

Valentine : You know what this is like? It’s like those old movies we both love. Now, I’m going to tell you my whole plan, and then I’m going to come up with some absurd and convoluted way to kill you, and you’ll find an equally convoluted way to escape.

****** (name hidden for spoilers) : Sounds good to me.

Valentine : Well, this ain’t that kind of movie.

[shoots ***** in the head] 

Kingsman: The Secret Service 

This scene from Kingsman came to mind when viewing Argylle. Both films, directed by Matthew Vaughn, are action-comedies centering on spies. Kingsman is a sharp take on the old-fashioned espionage genre, a mashup of Guy Ritchie and James Bond with enough self-awareness to subvert some of the worst cliches, yet Argylle is decidedly ambivalent towards its place in the genre, making the same mistakes as all the mediocre spy movies to come before it. In stark contrast to Kingsman, Argylle is “that kind of movie.”

Ellie Conway is a novelist who has just finished her fifth novel in the wildly popular Argylle series. While the characters in her books lead very exciting lives, Ellie is content to spend her nights at home with some wine and her cat, Alfie. Her life is shaken up by the arrival of Aiden, a secret agent too comfortable with violence, who tells her that she’s in danger. To her surprise, the stories in her books  are all based on true events, and the real life counterparts are after her to discover what will happen next. Aiden needs Ellie’s help to take down an evil spy agency, but does an overly cautious writer really have what it takes to live out a real-life spy adventure?

It’s a pretty original hook for a movie and the first act delivers on the premise. Ellie and Aiden have very good chemistry and watching them learn to work together while outrunning endless armies of evil spies is fun. However, the movie works a little too hard to outsmart the audience and the second act bombards the viewer with twists, surprises, reveals, and fake-outs to the point of exhaustion. The third act picks up again, with some cartoony and one-of-a-kind set-pieces, but by that point, the characters and their allegiances have undergone such radical transformations in such a short time, that they’re unrecognizable to the audience. 

The talented cast is largely underserved by the writing. Henry Cavill, John Cena, Dua Lipa, and Arianna Debose play the characters in Conway’s novels. Their shallow characterizations could be excused as intentional, perhaps a satire of older spy films. The real-life characters don’t have that excuse. They are just as shallow and two-dimensional as the characters in the book. The contrast between the real and the fictional is almost non-existent, which severely undercuts the point of even depicting scenes from the novel.

Sam Rockwell plays Aiden and is the only actor to rise above the material. He’s played similar parts before in films such as Mr. Right and Seven Psychopaths. This character is right in his wheelhouse, and he nails every aspect: the humor, the action, the frustration, and the romance. Rockwell isn’t breaking any new ground for himself as an actor here. He just plays the hits, keeping the film lively and moving.

The action set pieces vary wildly from the first act to the third. In the beginning, the action is pretty conventional, shoot-outs and hand-to-hand combat in a contained location. It’s well choreographed and accompanied by witty banter, but oddly interrupted with footage of Henry Cavill in place of Sam Rockwell, as Ellie imagines her fictional spy in place of Aiden. This concept is ineffective, overused, and weakens the excitement of the scene.

The action of the third act feels much more like the Matthew Vaughn of Kingsman. The violence is now a lot sillier. There’s a lot more CGI. An upbeat pop song plays in the background for comedic effect. For some people, it might be just too out of left field, but I found it all to be really enjoyable. There’s a lack of restraint in the last 40 minutes that exposes how lifeless the first 2/3 were.

 Not every Matthew Vaughn movie is great, but even at his worst, there is a level of vision and effort that is lacking in Argylle. His past works dealt with themes such as socio-economic commentary, class disparity, and antisemitism. And Argylle concerns itself primarily with CGI cats. 

Not every movie has to be a brilliant think-piece or some kind of genre deconstruction. Some movies need to exist in those genres. But if someone like Matthew Vaughn is going to direct two hours of mindless entertainment, he can do better than Argylle.