Argylle knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and it’s up to the rest of us to keep up.
I think Matthew Vaughn had his tongue planted firmly in cheek throughout the bulk of production, and he delivers an energetic romp that gives us a series of twists that all take us deeper into a convoluted plot that’s both clever and silly. This is a comedy, and while it takes itself as seriously as it needs to, it never takes itself too seriously. And that works to the better.
Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard in mom jeans) is a waitress-turned-author who’s just published her latest installment in a book series featuring superspy Argylle (Henry Cavill), and when confronted with the possibility that her next book doesn’t quite end right, she hops on a train with her cat in tow and heads out to visit Mom June (Catherine O’Hara) for a brainstorming session. Only before she gets there, she meets scruffy-looking nerf herder Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who introduces himself as a for-real spy and proceeds to save her life from practically everyone else on the train trying to kill her.
From there, it’s a roller-coaster ride of plot twists in a story that feels like James Bond got dropped into Romancing the Stone. Elly is repeated confronted with all manner of wild (and sometimes silly) scenarios where Aidan is saving her at the same time teaching her how to do espionage, revealing that through her novels she’s unwittingly come close to revealing an actual rogue intelligence agency that now needs her to finish her next book so they can recover a file full of details about the conspiracy.
And through a clever bit of editing and hallucination, Elly keeps seeing Agent Argylle interchangeably with Aidan.
The action is hyper-kinetic at times, and typical of Vaughn with his Kingsman films aesthetic. But remember, this one’s a straight-up comedy action picture, so there are some predictable story beats, but the writing is smart enough to connect the dots in a way that doesn’t feel ham-fisted or overwrought. Howard gets to show off a bit of range between the start of the encounter and the end, and her chemistry with Rockwell sells the whole preposterous notion.
Bryan Cranston gets to chew the scenery, and while his performance is more Dr. Evil than Dr. No, he has a couple of choice moments. Not many, and I think his character is the weak link in the chain, if I had to quibble about anything. His turn as the villain is just a little too broad in some instances; all he needs is a moustache to twirl as he hams around the control room of his lair.
Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t get very much to do, and that’s disappointing. Maybe he was doing Vaughn a favor?
Rockwell really does steal a lot of the movie. He’s irreverent and sarcastic one minute, all business dispatching the bad guys in the next minute. It’s interesting to see him in this kind of role, too, because you don’t normally see Sam Rockwell as a romantic lead type of actor. But he holds his own opposite Howard, who gives as good as she gets. The evolution of Elly from timid mouse to … something more … owes a lot to Howard’s ability to make sure that Elly is ignorant of things, not incompetent when it comes to the actual spy stuff. The dynamic reminds me a lot of Scarecrow and Mrs. King or Chuck, wherein the “normal” person gets swept up in fantastic circumstances and is forced to swim. The script gives us plenty of references to Elly’s research efforts to make sure her secret agents are plausible enough, and that research starts to come in handy as she and Aidan work to track down that secret file.
Which leads me to the fact that I keep forgetting that Bryce Dallas Howard is an actress. I have it in my head that she’s a director, so I have the occasional “oh, yeah” moments when she’s in front of the camera. And she looks a whole lot better as a redhead with bangs…
Upon leaving the theater, I heard that this is based on the book by Elly Conway. First: no, it’s not. Not quite. There is a book, Argylle: The Novel, ostensibly by Elly Conway (and not Taylor Swift). Judging by the description of the book over on Amazon, the story in the book is not what you’re going to see on the screen. It’s almost a meta-story, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the book was created as a marketing gimmick in the same way Marvel gave us Look Out for the Little Guy by Scott Lang — yes, it’s a real book, but it’s not a real book.
Also, this one last thing: remember, I said this was a comedy. It’s not a parody. It’s not a send-up of the usual spy tropes. It uses those tropes to sell the humor, and it works. It’s a popcorn flick. Nothing more than that. Vaughn probably could have done it with a smaller budget and less CGI, but how else are you going to get a cooperative cat?