Matthew Vaughn infused the spy genre with a sense of violent, tongue-in-cheek fun in 2014’s Kingsman, which spawned a similarly outrageous sequel and prequel. His latest, Argylle, retains the entertaining ridiculousness of the former franchise while eschewing blood-soaked action for stylish whimsy. The film, written by Jason Fuchs and based on a novel Elly Conway (who fans have, perhaps incorrectly, suspected is a pen name for Taylor Swift), boasts strong performances and creatively memorable sequences, but sometimes loses itself in a roller coaster of plot twists that many will see coming.
ARGYLLE ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
Bryce Dallas Howard stars as a reclusive novelist, also named Elly Conway. She’s written a best-selling series of espionage novels about a James Bond-like spy named Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill with an inexplicable buzz cut). Elly keeps to herself outside of book readings, spending more of her time with her cat Alfie, a Russian blue that belongs to Vaughn in real life, and Skyping with her mom Ruth (Catherine O’Hara). After Elly hops on a train to visit her parents, it becomes apparent that her books may not entirely be fiction. With the help of Aiden (Sam Rockwell in peak form), Elly goes on the run from a mysterious global organization who want information she supposedly has. To know more would spoil the constant surprises, but to suffice to say there is a lot of high-octane action and thrills as Elly uncovers the connection between her novels and the real-world spy game.
Howard, who was done dirty by the Jurassic World franchise, is perfectly cast as Elly, a woman more concerned about her cat than the fate of the world. She plays each twist with believable, likeable ease and her presence opens the film up to a broader audience than Kingsman, which always felt male-oriented. The expansive cast also includes the always-funny John Cena as Wyatt, Agent Argylle’s fictional partner, and Samuel L. Jackson and Bryan Cranston as espionage leaders duking it out for control. Dua Lipa’s much-heralded role is miniscule and is essentially stunt casting and trailer bait. Everyone else, especially O’Hara and Rockwell, go all in on the heightened, winking tone. When it clicks, particularly in the climactic fight sequences, it’s because the cast and Vaughn refuse to hold back.
Argylle hinges on the audience not knowing what’s coming, but it’s impossible to avoid spoilers, many of which were actually part of the film’s marking campaign. It runs too long, at more than two hours, sometimes straggling through exposition. The villain, played gamely by Cranston, isn’t particularly compelling. It’s unclear what motivates him (world domination? money?) and the character is generically wooden. Howard’s Elly feels specific and complex, which only makes the juxtaposition more apparent.
Vaughn has a plan for more films in this series, as well as an eventual Avengers-style team-up between the characters in Argylle and those in Kingsman. It’s a fun idea, especially considering the director’s skill at choreographing original, high energy action scenes that don’t feel like retreads. And like Kingsman, Argylle is slick and entertaining, with a wry sense of humor that helps to maintain the momentum. Despite its plot hiccups, it’s an enjoyable ride that has the potential of a wide audience thanks to its charming protagonist and PG-13 rating. Did Taylor Swift write the novel it’s based on? Doubtful, but it certainly has the same good-natured appeal as her music.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.