‘Argylle’ Review: Matthew Vaughn’s Absurd Spy Adventure Lacks Claws

Liem Soeng

‘Argylle’ Review: Matthew Vaughn’s Absurd Spy Adventure Lacks Claws

Say what you will about “Kingsman” (I’m a fan), but Matthew Vaughn’s 2014 spy movie built to an undeniably gonzo climax that took hours of careful tone-setting to earn and a wild imagination to execute. A quick, spoilery refresher for those of you who don’t share my sophisticated appreciation for pure cinema: A computer chip — implanted into the flesh of the rich and powerful in order to save them from a global culling — suddenly backfires, triggering hundreds or thousands of spectacular deaths around the planet that peak with then-president Barack Obama’s head erupting off his body in a rainbow gas explosion of cartoon death. It’s the kind of denouement that helps make sense of the silliness that led up to it, and recontextualizes the movie’s irreverent pastiche as a necessary path towards pop absurdism. 

Say what you will about “Argylle” (meh), but Matthew Vaughn’s 2024 spy movie ends with two similarly orgiastic sequences of comic violence that likewise require hours of careful tone-setting to earn and a wild imagination to execute. Only this time, that grand finale doesn’t retroactively affirm the long and winding road it took to get there so much as it makes you wish that Vaughn had found a shortcut. This time, watching [redacted] and [redacted] dance-massacre a corridor full of henchmen — in another rainbow gas explosion of cartoon death — is less a giddy payoff for the rest of this strained adventure than a go-for-broke reminder that the rest of it wasn’t nearly as much fun. 

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And when a Matthew Vaughn movie isn’t fun, it doesn’t exactly have a lot to fall back on. Equal parts “Romancing the Stone” and “Jason Bourne” (even though both of those inspirations are suffocated beneath Vaughn’s signature varnish), “Argylle” ends on another glorious high that a more serious movie would never have been able to pull off, but the flimsy and hyper-contrived fluff leading up to it is so determined to justify its own absurdity that it doesn’t leave us enough of a chance to enjoy it. 

That effort is on full display from the very first scene, as Jason Fuchs’ high-concept script kicks off with a prologue that spotlights the absurdity of the story to come while simultaneously framing it as a meta excuse for all of the film’s shortcomings. Sure, the suave and unflappable Argylle — played by Henry Cavill, smoldering in a series of collarless jackets that make his head look like a perfect square — is just a simple caricature of literature’s most iconic spies, and the CGI-drunk action sequence where he crashes a Jeep through half the houses on Mykonos is rendered with all the realism of a Playstation 2 cut-scene, but that’s only because all of this is being dreamed up by an anxious cat lady who learned everything she knows about espionage from reading books and watching movies. 

That hasn’t stopped novelist Elly Conway (an enjoyably squeamish and surprising Bryce Dallas Howard) from approaching Robert Ludlum levels of fame as she prepares to release the latest book in her mega-popular “Argylle” franchise, but it definitely raises some eyebrows. When someone mentions that Elly is the spy novelist that actual spies read, it sounds as insane as saying that “Grey’s Anatomy” is the medical show that actual doctors watch. After all, Ian Fleming and John le Carré really were covert operatives before they became famous writers. The fact that Fuchs takes a beat to point that out is yet another clue that “Argylle” — the movie, not the book series — is all too aware of its most asinine details, and needs you to question them so that it can surprise you with the answers when you least expect it.

Bryce Dallas Howard as Elly Conway in Argylle, directed by Matthew Vaughn.
“Argylle”Peter Mountain/Universal Pictures

Of course, there’s a risk in forcing people to ask themselves things like, “Are the special effects that bad on purpose?,” “Why did they cast Catherine O’Hara as Elly’s mom if they weren’t going to let her be even a little funny?,” and “Can we please go back to that part in the prologue when John Cena snatched Dua Lipa off a speeding motorcycle?,” but “Argylle” seems to believe that constantly bombarding people with such questions will keep them busy until the big picture finally comes into view. It does and it doesn’t. I mean, there’s certainly enough to make you second guess, but “surprise: the movie you just sat through wasn’t quite as dumb as you thought!” would be a more satisfying twist if it didn’t also feel like the only possible explanation.

Struggling to write a new ending for her latest book, poor Elly is as much in the dark as we are, and caught even more off-guard when her own life suddenly becomes the stuff of her spy novels. The crunchy Midwestern beardo who sits across from her on the train she’s taking to visit her mom? It turns out he’s a secret agent, and the only person aboard that Amtrak who isn’t trying to murder Elly; cue the sort of technically janky but delightfully off-kilter fight scene that Vaughn has always done so well. 

The agent’s name is Aidan, he’s there because Sam Rockwell has always loved to goof off for good money, and he tells Elly that she’s been targeted by the world’s deadliest spy network because — deep breath — her latest book is so perceptive that its missing chapter might reveal the location of a missing data file. There’s obviously more to it than that (it has something to do with a shotgun-wielding Bryan Cranston), but the hour that “Argylle” spends chasing its own tail in the build-up to its big reveal is almost as hard for us to survive as it is for Elly and Aiden, whose “dainty girl and cool-headed spy” dynamic sorely lacks the sizzle it needs to put a fresh spin on a classic formula. 

It doesn’t help that Vaughn’s juvenile sense of humor is a poor match for the rom-com energy of Fuchs’ script, and the director only seems further declawed by the decision to make this movie PG-13, even though Apple produced it as a glorified advertisement for its streaming platform (Universal is distributing it in theaters). Vaughn has always thrived on the kind of cutely transgressive kitsch exemplified by the gory “Kingsman” shootout where Colin Firth slaughters a horde of mind-controlled parishioners in a Kentucky church, and he struggles to find the same degree of “how the hell did he get a studio to pay for this?” fun in repetitive sequences of Elly and her Scottish Fold cat running from some evil redshirts. 

Vaughn tries to squeeze a mote of visual invention from a limp and endlessly recurring bit about how Elly can’t tell if she’s being rescued by Aidan or by Argylle himself, but that preoccupation with the blurred line between fiction and reality grows more and more frustrating in a film so palpably desperate to explode that binary in favor of the pure ridiculousness it promised us from the start. “Argylle” gets there in the end, achieving the kind of absurdity that English-language action movies are seldom allowed to enjoy, but it’s too little too late.

There’s truth behind every story, “Argylle” insists, and a story behind every truth. Where does that leave the fantastic sight of someone “ice” skating on a cement floor covered in crude oil and mowing people down with a machine gun as they pirouette in the air? I don’t know, and I desperately wish that “Argylle” didn’t care. 

Grade: C+

Universal Pictures will release “Argyle” in theaters on Friday, February 2.

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