Marketing for Argylle has centered around the film’s gigantic secret. Successful spy author Elly Conway’s novels have an uncanny way of predicting actual events. Now her latest book has led a real evil spy organization to hunt her down across the globe. How did a quiet, awkward writer end up in an actual life-or-death chase with trained assassins? And how much—if any—of what’s happening to her is even real? Is this all a figment of her imagination? A meta story within a story within another story? The movie’s trailers hinted at a shocking revelation that would explain everything by promoting a single line of dialogue: “It’s time for you to meet the real Agent Argylle.”
It’s a great, memorable tease, the kind of line that can sell an entire film on its own. And for the first half of the movie, I desperately wished I hadn’t heard it before watching Argylle. It seemed impossible director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jason Fuchs could possibly come close to delivering a satisfying reveal. They’d overpromised and now they were going to underdeliver. The resulting disappointment was going to ruin what, until then, had been an entertaining, exciting, funny, surprisingly moving film.
Then they did it. They actually pulled it off, with an original, creative, and (most importantly) highly satisfying twist. The truth about the real Agent Argylle and Elly’s role in everything made all of the story’s pieces fall into place. Every question and concern I’d had that what I’d seen would prove to be inane or unearned was wiped away in an instant. I was thrilled. That was until, for some inexplicable reason, the movie lost its way and turned into a dumb, broad comedy, as a series of absurd scenes and an overly long ending turned a potentially great film into a merely good, very flawed one.
Argylle has countless secrets and twists that make for a fun action-comedy thriller. If you enjoy Vaughn’s Kingsman movies, you’ll likely also vibe with Argylle. Just as with Vaughn’s other spy franchise, his new movie exists in an elevated reality. It’s not completely untethered to the real world, but it’s not exactly bound by it either. That’s the frequency the movie successfully operates at for its first two-thirds. It allows the story to feel light without being pure fluff. It also lets the action be wild without being cartoonish.
That works until the film abandons its winning formula and things go wrong in the final act. Instead of silly fun, the movie gets silly stupid. Those connections to reality are completely forgotten in the name of spectacle and laughs, only what happens is too dumb to be funny. Argylle completely loses its own tone and it replaces it with something far, far inferior.
What always works are the film’s two leads. Bryce Dallas Howard is delightful as author Elly Conway. She’s likable, smart, and sweet. The film also asks Howard to do far more than you’d expect from the role, and she does everything well. Howard’s especially at her best when Elly is at her most vulnerable. For a movie that is essentially a comedy, it manages to find real moments of pathos throughout. Argylle has heart and much of that heart is Elly herself.
The other part of the film’s emotional core comes from the person who also carries the majority of the film’s comedy, Howard’s co-star Sam Rockwell. He’s the best part of the film as Aiden, a droll, funny, highly capable, empathetic world-class spy trying to keep Elly alive. Rockwell is so good, I’m furious no one has turned him into an action star with his own franchise. He reminded me of Harrison Ford, but without losing any of his trademark Sam Rockwell-ness. Unsurprisingly, the Oscar-winner also excels in quieter, more emotional moments. He’s essential to why the film works. Even in the rare early spots where Argylle feels like it might be losing steam or its humor isn’t landing as well as you’d like, Rockwell picks everything back up and gets it on track.
The movie also features a pretty amazing supporting cast, though it doesn’t utilize everyone as well as it could. Bryan Cranston plays the head of the evil spy organization chasing Elly and Catherine O’Hara is her mom. Unfortunately their parts just aren’t as good as they are. They’re both good, I just found myself wishing they were asked to do even more. One role that does match its actor is Samuel L. Jackson’s mystery part. (He’s the one who says the “meet the real Agent Argylle” line in the trailer so don’t worry, I didn’t just spoil that.)
As for Elly’s fictional characters, Henry Cavill is perfect as her book’s main spy, the flat-topped and stylish Argylle. As is Dua Lipa as the femme fatale terrorist he hunts down in Elly’s most recent book. John Cena is also a lot of fun as Argylle’s partner, Wyatt, despite only being a small part. This is the same with Ariana DeBose, who once again shows why it’s always good to cast her. Despite having a minor role, she’s a complete delight every time she’s on screen.
That is not true of the movie’s dumb cat. Look, I don’t care, be as mad as you want with me, a cat person. Little, often CGI’ed Alfie is one of the worst parts of Argylle. Alfie’s importance to the events of the story only matters a few times, not nearly enough to justify its oversized role in the film’s plot or its marketing. Too often, Elly’s cat feels like a distraction, or worse, a cheap and lazy attempt to generate both comedy and emotion. Argylle would be better if it cut the cat entirely.
Ultimately that’s true of too much of the film’s third act. Argylle feels like it’s five minutes away from ending for the entire last 40 minutes. Considering those 40 minutes are also when the tone changes and things gets regrettably stupid, it’s a very long 40 minutes.
But those flaws aren’t enough to overcome everything Argylle does well, most of which I can’t discuss in a spoiler-free review. What I can say is that, despite my issues, it’s ultimately a fun, incredibly clever and original film that will entertain you with its action, make you laugh with (most of) its comedy, and have you feeling genuine emotions for its characters. All of which makes for a good time at the movies. It’s just too bad it’s not a great one because it could have been.
Argylle hits theaters on February 2, 2024.