HomeReviews‘Argylle’ Review: Don’t Sweat Her, Her Spy Novels Come to Life

‘Argylle’ Review: Don’t Sweat Her, Her Spy Novels Come to Life


The list of locations visited by the characters in Argylle reads like the ultimate luxury vacation: Greece, London, Hong Kong, French wine country. As well it should; it is an unwritten rule of spy movies like Argylle that the heroes must trot the globe while saving it.

But when James Bond travels the world, the cast and the crew usually go with him to those real places. If he jumps off a mountain in Austria, they go to the Alps to shoot it. When you watch The Spy You Love Me, you get glimpses of Egypt and Sardinia in between the bad puns and karate chops. That travelogue component, that taste of what it might feel like to see incredible sights while occasionally punching a man with metal jaws for teeth, have always been a key element of classic spy films’ appeal.

Sadly Argylle is not a classic spy film, nor does it seem to have been shot in many of the actual countries the characters purport to visit. According to what I can find online, the movie was made in London, but the only place it looks like anyone went was a green screen stage. The rest appears to have been left to overworked VFX artists to finish. At a certain point, I began to wonder: Why even bother with a plot that sends characters all over the world if this is how you’re going to shoot it?

Universal Pictures

READ MORE: The Worst Spy Movies Ever Made

Because that’s how spy movies have always done it, I suppose, and Argylle is nothing if not besotted with the glamour and panache of old spy movies. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, who previously made the similarly toned (but narratively sleeker) Kingsman, it imagines a world where a mousy writer of bestselling novels about a super-spy discovers her books are somehow coming to life — and the characters from them now want her dead.

Early scenes depict the glossy fantasy world hatched up by Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), where Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) trades quips with his sidekick Wyatt (John Cena) and does battle with (and occasionally performs acrobatic dance moves with) a slinky femme fatale (Dua Lipa). Elly’s next novel, the fifth in the Argylle saga, will supposedly bring its epic story to a close, and readers can’t wait for it.

Then Elly boards a train to visit her supportive mother (Catherine O’Hara) and wouldn’t you know it? The scruffy bearded dude in the seat next to her turns out to be a real-life Argylle named Aidan (Sam Rockwell). He explains his mission in between punches and kicks: Elly’s novels are somehow about real-world events, and so the actual tinkers and tailors and soldiers and spies involved in those events want to get their hands on her to see how things turn out. He’s there to stop them.

Credit where credit is due: The revelation of what is really going on with Elly and her books is legitimately clever. It’s unexpected but makes a ton of sense. But the rest of Argylle’s plot is hopelessly convoluted — so convoluted, in fact, that it takes an interminable 140 minutes to untangle it all. At least the bad spy movies that inspired Argylle were simple to follow and breathlessly paced.

They also looked better too, with those real-world locations and convincing effects. The opening action sequence drawn from Elly’s latest book, with Henry Cavill chasing Dua Lipa through the windy streets of Greece looks dreadfully synthetic, a choice I initially thought might be intended to distinguish Elly’s fictional world from the down and dirty spies she would encounter in real life.

No such luck; all of Argylle shares that same artificial look. Everything feels phony, right down to Elly’s beloved cat Alfie, who she totes everywhere in a yellow argyle backpack. Alfie appears to be an entirely CGI creation from beginning to end. (According to this article, Vaughn fired the “useless” professional cat actor he’d originally cast, then brought his daughter’s cat in to play the part. Based on the screen time CGI Alfie got, I’m guessing that cat wasn’t much more cooperative.)

Universal Pictures

While the human actors look better, they never quite congeal into a cohesive ensemble. Howard and Rockwell are not necessarily the actors you think of when casting a high-octane action spectacle with lots of fight choreography and gunplay — which is precisely why they are ideal choices for Elly and Aidan, at least separately. Together they don’t really have a lot of chemistry, something that becomes a problem when the plot starts to fixate on the opposites-attract romance that blossoms as they investigate the secret of Elly’s mysteriously clairvoyant books.

Similarly, Bryan Cranston playing the manipulative head of “The Division” that finds itself exposed by Elly’s writing sounds like a better idea in theory than in execution. Most of the other supporting players — especially Cena and Samuel L. Jackson as yet another shadowy covert operative — appear in just enough scenes to make you wish their roles were more than glorified bit parts.

Like Vaughn, I love ’60s and ’70s spy movies, even the ones that are kitschy and alittle bit cheesy. I don’t need every thriller to take itself seriously — too many of them already do these days — so I welcome something like Argylle that’s got a lot of personality and really embraces outlandish action scenes. (The one involving ice skating … wow.) But a lot of the stuff I love in those old movies — the gorgeous locales, the jaw-dropping practical stunts, real sexual tension  — just isn’t present here. Instead, we get a talented cast trapped in an endless, labyrinthian story with a fake cat.

Additional Thoughts:

-I can’t tell you the movie Argylle most directly reminded me of — one of my favorite movies ever, in fact — because it’s so close in structure to this unnamed title that even mentioning it in this context would qualify as a spoiler.

Argylle contains the single most baffling post-credits scene I have ever seen in my life. I’ve seen worse post-credits scenes, but never one I understood less. I could not explain its meaning to you if my life depended on it. If my life depended on that, I would be dead.

RATING: 4/10

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