VERDICT: Yet another star-packed, high-gloss caper lacking in wit, stakes, charm, or a reason to exist.
As self-consciously excessive — and, ultimately, as pointless — as the extra “L” in its title, Argylle is an alleged comedy about a hacky but successful spy novelist (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) who finds herself embroiled in real-life espionage. After 139 torturous minutes, however, it’s evident that the movie isn’t any better written or less terrible than the lead character’s contrived prose.
It’s a joyless, airless affair, a big shiny nothing that ticks off all the boxes of what film critic Lon Harris calls “a Red Notice movie,” named for the tedious caper starring Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot, and Dwayne Johnson. This category of film, per Harris, involves all-star casts (given little to do) and globe-trotting locations (wasted among the obvious green-screen scenes); most importantly, this type of movie “straddles the action, comedy, caper, and adventure genres, but commits to none.”
That sums up the Argylle experience, a movie with multiple plot twists the studio has asked critics not to reveal. This is unsurprising since those twists underscore the weakness of the screenplay by Jason Fuchs (Pan): It’s constantly pulling the rug out from under viewers, only to reveal no floor underneath.
In true Romancing the Stone fashion, novelist Elly Conway (Howard) writes about sexy international super-spies even though she’s a shy loner, staying home with her beloved cat. Too nervous and risk-averse to get onboard a plane, Elly takes a train to visit her mother (Catherine O’Hara) for help in finishing her fifth adventure featuring secret agent Argylle (Henry Cavill, saddled with a strange 80s Bond villain’s henchman haircut).
Elly’s personal space in Amtrak first-class is invaded by the shaggy Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who tells her he’s a fan before announcing that he’s in the spy game himself; he proves the latter by dispatching dozens of assassins onboard who intend to kill Elly. It turns out her Argylle books aren’t just best-sellers; they’re also prescient, which makes her the prime target of a rogue spy agency.
And then things get complicated. Except they don’t. Director Matthew Vaughn, fresh off the success of his irritating Kingsman franchise, makes Argylle utterly weightless, both literally (the stuntwork all seems to be taking place in zero gravity) and figuratively (the barely-there characters never register). Who can Elly trust? Who cares? Who, even, is Elly in the first place? Though the plot twists answer those questions, they fail to make any of those revelations matter in the slightest.
By the time Argylle finally crawls its way to something resembling a resolution, Vaughn unpacks two big action sequences that marry the choreography of dance with the choreography of violence, but even those scenes are a) too little, too late, and b) floating in a digital void — and if we can’t visually ground the performers in time and space, we certainly can’t be bothered to muster concern for their wellbeing.
The impressive ensemble of players — along for the ride, in addition to Howard, Rockwell, O’Hara, and Cavill, are Bryan Cranston, Ariana DeBose, John Cena, Dua Lipa, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sofia Boutella — were no doubt well recompensed for their time. Still, no one’s doing much acting here, only because no one has called upon them to do so. Cranston and Jackson yell a lot in front of computer screens, and everyone else drifts through the nebulous VFX-to-be-added-later vacuum that’s the true location of this vaporous exercise.
The closing credits promise-threaten a prequel to all of this, which seems like wishful thinking until you realize that Apple thought it was a good idea to budget 200 million dollars on the project. The company would, perhaps, consider spending that kind of money on laptops that don’t crash when they force you to upgrade your operating system, a situation that’s only slightly more frustrating than having to sit through Argylle.