Argylle is all style, little substance, and perhaps too much spycraft

Published February 18, 2024

Design by Rachel Zhang

After a three-year diversion from the genre, director Matthew Vaughn has once again returned to the action spy thriller in a particularly garish way. Best known for works like Kick-Ass (2010) and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), Vaughn’s directorial acclaim comes from his ability to combine visually overwhelming aesthetics with fast-paced action and an exceptionally cheeky wit. While his films have never been massive critical hits, casual reception of his flicks usually is quite positive, making them a staple of family movie night.

Armed with a star-studded cast and a hefty budget, Argylle (2024) is Vaughn’s latest attempt to crown his already lengthy filmography with a cherry on top. Unfortunately, the film is less of a delicious banana sundae and more of a sticky, dripping, melting mess—enjoyable if you like a random mixture of distinct tastes, but confusing and off-putting for everyone else. Although a plethora of cinematographically stunning scenes attempts to masquerade its structural shortcomings, at its core Argylle tries to do too much and be too clever for its own good.

The film’s primary protagonist is acclaimed spy novelist Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), who discovers she has unknowingly been predicting the actions of real-life spy factions in her popular book series, Argylle. Her divinatory abilities have made her a target of the “Directory,” a sinister organization that craves the tactical advantage that her series’ final installment could provide. As goons close in on Conway, a benevolent spy named Aiden (Sam Rockwell) swoops in and recruits her to work for the secret resistance against the Directory. Thus, the two go on the run, seeking to thwart the enemy while uncovering the truth behind Elly’s prophetic novels.

If Argylle’s plot only focused on this singular storyline as the trailers suggested, it would honestly be an entertaining average-person-turned-hero movie with just a hint of mystery and fantasy to spice things up. Instead, Vaughn seems more interested in aimlessly adding layers and plot twists in a vain attempt to seem inventive. Characters die and then triumphantly return without much thought. Allegiances flip-flop constantly, clumsily blurring the lines between hero and villain. Not only do these constant twists make understanding the plot a herculean effort, but they also reveal a lack of confidence in the film’s core plot line. Rather than savoring Elly and Aiden’s buddy-cop chemistry, audiences find themselves struggling to wrap their minds around triple agents and secret villains. 

Vaughn’s decision to include scenes from Elly’s novels as part of the film further convolutes this already messy story. Admittedly, watching the fictional Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) drive a Jeep across housetops to chase the motorcycle-riding LaGrange (Dua Lipa) is pretty amazing. Yet, your head might start to spin as these scenes begin to blend with real life, with Elly envisioning Agent Argylle fighting in Aiden’s place. There’s really no way to consistently explain the logic of the film—you just have to turn off your higher brain functions and look at the pretty colors. That might be fine for parents bringing their preteens to their first PG-13 flick, but for everyone else, it’s just disappointing.

There’s something to be said about critics expecting too much from action blockbusters that aren’t meant to be “that deep.” The problem is, the film wants to seem complex while simultaneously trivializing that complexity to salvage some relatability. The film weaves an intricate web of plot twists and secrets in hopes of recreating the carefully crafted narratives of mystery megahits like Knives Out (2019). But just when you think the film is taking things seriously, it reverts to making fun of itself, like when Aiden breaks the fourth wall and calls the film’s plot twists “stupid.” The movie awkwardly hedges its bets between suspenseful thriller and self-aware comedy, ultimately leaving the film feeling tonally muddy.

Overall, Argylle feels cheaply designed to make money and that’s about it. The stacked cast feels more like a dangling carrot on a stick rather than an intentional creative choice, with A-listers like Samuel L. Jackson and John Cena appearing so minimally that you can’t help but wonder if all their scenes were shot in one day. When half of the film’s major stars feel painfully non-essential, you can’t help but feel pandered to, almost like Argylle’s producers expect us to shell out all our dollars just to fulfill our Henry-Cavill-as-Bond fantasy.

As much as Argylle deserves to be criticized, it does have some redeeming qualities that save it from complete stinker status. For one, Sam Rockwell’s performance as Aiden stands out as the glue holding the fraying pieces of this film together. His dry humor and unimposing figure make him a perfect audience stand-in, even as he shows Elly that stomping on anonymous henchmen’s heads is “just like dancing.” It’s probably not great that the most relatable character in this film isn’t Elly, the actual protagonist, but at least Rockwell is able to occasionally cut through the utter narrative nonsense to elicit a chuckle.

Furthermore, the film successfully recreates some of the aesthetic magic that Vaughn’s work is known for. Argylle’s unabashed ridiculousness shines in the action sequences which are narratively inconsequential, making scenes like a half-dance-half-gunfight shrouded in rainbow pastel smoke particularly memorable. Though, considering how nonsensical the rest of the film is, these absurd scenes make you wonder whether they were just shot to include clips of them in the trailer.

Argylle absolutely has its charming moments. But to continue the ice cream metaphor, the film’s fun parts feel akin to a kid adding gummy bears to a three-scoop-cone consisting of cotton candy, mint chocolate, and rum raisin, drizzled in caramel sauce. In other words, Argylle tries to blend too many tones, genres, and narrative elements at once, and fails to achieve any of them. While some might enjoy that sort of wild concoction, the majority of us would rather savor each of those flavors individually than having all of them assaulting our taste buds at once.

Zachary Warren
Zach is the Halftime Leisure Editor and a junior in the College majoring in Government and History. He likes horror movies, board games, and if you see him late at night, he might do a little jig for you.

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