Across its extensive, gimmicky marketing campaign, Matthew Vaughn’s Argylle repeatedly asks one eponymous question: Who is agent Argylle? It’s an enticing, almost Hitchcockian ask that beckons viewers into uncovering a secret so shocking, it threatens to redefine everything they thought they knew about the film. But upon its conclusion, audiences are left with another important question: Why should we care? It’s a query that ends up being much more practical, especially because Vaughn’s insipid spy-action satire manifests as little more than an amalgamation of all the half-baked tropes it seeks to make light of. In attempting to deconstruct it’s “Bondian” influences with a winking, high-concept plot, it retains none of the charm and wit that made them so memorable and, most of all, enjoyable—often becoming the butt of the joke it aims to deliver.
At the center of Argylle lies novelist Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), who on the heels of her successful 5th entry in the “Argylle” spy novel series hits a creative block drafting the next instalment. While on route to visit her mother (Catherine O’Hara) she runs into the scruffy, bumbling Aiden (Sam Rockwell, in the film’s sole good performance), a real-life operative who informs her that the plot of her latest novel has inadvertently aligned with and exposed the shady activities of a rogue spy organization led by the merciless Ritter (Bryan Cranston). With a gaggle of evil henchman hunting her, she must rely on Aiden to not only survive but uncover the conspiracy she finds herself embroiled in.
Argylle hopes to insert a metatextual wrinkle into its globe-trotting adventure by having Elly’s literary creation, secret agent Argylle (Henry Cavill), flicker on screen as a double for Aiden. But the effect, intended to parody spy movies, falls flat at each turn. Particularly because its fictional sequences— full of the intentionally corny platitudes 007 might spout—unfold exactly like their “real life” counterparts. Neither Elly or Aiden resemble genuine people, sharing more in common with the plasticky caricatures Vaughn and Company make fun of than anything else. Cranston’s Ritter is the walking embodiment of every cliched super villain committed to paper, from his menacing grin to his violent treatment of subordinates.
As a result, Argylle becomes the very shoddy, thinly written caper it clambers to poke holes in. Repeatedly bobbing for the lowest hanging fruit with groan-inducing dialogue like “It seems we serve the same master” or, even worse, “let the lamb roar”. What makes matters worse is that Argylle thinks we’re laughing with it during these moments, when we’re really laughing at it.
Any chance of Argylle’s smug, meta-narrative hitting its target is dashed by the over-polished filmmaking, which zaps the experience of any identity and personality—something its apparent influences could never be accused of lacking. The flatly lit cinematography gives way to a flurry of choppy action sequences that are defined by their over-reliance on cheesy slow-motion and reaction shots that more-or-less consist of Elly’s computer-generated feline giving a disgruntled stare. Vaughn’s insistence on underpinning these scenes with a steady stream of eye-rolling needle drops—the most soulless of which being The Beatles’ recently recovered “Now and Then”—puts an emphatic stamp on how trite and banal Argylle feels.
With each easily predictable and confoundingly convenient twist, the film’s central mystery continues to lack a noticeable bite. An unfortunate effect the ceaselessly grating, monochromatic flashbacks only serve to heighten. The more Argylle explains its convoluted plot, the less interested we become, especially as each revelation forces these already skin-deep characters to shift gears and radically alter how they react to one another. The result is both jarring and lifeless, culminating in a climactic hallway action sequence that aims for the operatic and the idiosyncratic but rings hollow with each feigned maneuver.
At its best, Argylle is the cinematic equivalent of a very, very dull escape room. What could have been a sly satire of the much-adored spy genre is undone by the very foibles and failings that plague them. Vaughn’s haphazard attempt to connect it to the Kingsman franchise and tease a supposed sequel serves as a final, forgettable nail in film’s coffin. If nothing else, Argylle will make viewers appreciate the spirit of those cheesy, over-the-top spy movies that much more—just not in the way it intended.