Matthew Vaughn’s ‘Argylle’ Can’t Outrun Its Self-Sabotaging Plot

When does a filmmaker run out of something to say? That’s a question worth asking while watching “Argylle,” a new spy movie by Matthew Vaughn that feels like another blender of a thousand other movies. What is most curious about this overcooked extravaganza is how it begins with a very enticing premise. The authors of famous bestsellers rarely have an actual, real-life connection to the thriller fantasies they concoct. What if one of them was suddenly yanked into one of their scenarios? Vaughn’s movie begins with that charming premise and a convincing Bryce Dallas Howard, before turning into another shootout fest that becomes a parody of itself. 

The Agent Argylle of the title is played by Henry Cavill and opens the movie with a hilariously self-mocking mini-adventure in Greece, also involving another buffed agent (John Cena), a tech guru named Keira (Ariana DeBose) and a steamy dance number with a mysterious woman, LaGrange (Dua Lipa). These turn out to be characters in a series of spy novels by Elly Conway (Howard), who lives a pretty comfortable life at home with her cat. Fans are clamoring for the next book, which she’s busy writing. While on a train ride to visit her mother, (Catherine O’Hara), Elly bumps into a scruffy weirdo, Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who claims to be a fan. To Elly’s shock, he soon takes down a squad of goons before revealing that the writer is being sought by a nefarious organization, the Division, led by Director Ritter (Bryan Cranston), who wants to extract classified information Elly apparently has in her mind. It’s not just a case of a good author’s overactive imagination.

After starting off with measured, satirical fare like “Kick-Ass,” Vaughn became a big-budget name with the “X-Men” and “Kingsman” franchises. “Argylle” is a big, red blinking warning sign that he needs to return to his roots. Surely there must be some passion project gathering dust in his desk. Some of the old fire is almost there in the first act, which plays around with the idea of comparing the exaggerated world and look of Elly’s books with the supposedly rougher, real-life action involving Aidan, who has a normal haircut compared to Cavill’s overdone stylings. One of the best jokes in the entire movie has Aidan trying to convince Elly there’s nothing to the old move of crushing a bad guy’s head with a good foot twist. The material also pokes fun at those daring rooftop jumps all action movies feature. Cavill and John Cena are perfectly paired as spoofs of muscular action clichés. Dua Lipa is barely used but would have been great as well in satirizing further the supermodel assassins recycled to death.

Then “Argylle” makes the fatal mistake of giving itself a twist that turns it precisely into just another generic action flick where all the satirical humor is lost, boring, CGI-heavy sequences take over and you feel the movie’s 2 hours and 19 minutes. The screenplay by Jason Fuchs becomes so convoluted you easily lose track of what the spies are even after. A skating gag over spilled oil falls flat because it arrives during an endlessly dragging chase with few good jokes. Samuel L. Jackson drops in as the good counter to Bryan Cranston’s sleepy villain. Both great actors are left with little to do. The only other funny wink that lasts is how a coveted notebook belongs to an anarchist named Bakunin, after Marx’s anarchic rival in the International. Vaughn’s needle drops are also pretty weak. The use of the “new” Beatles song released last year, “Now and Then,” is so calculated it’s almost insulting. It turns into the movie’s love theme but for a romance that never works because Howard and Dallas lack the necessary chemistry and build up. It’s even more unconvincing when the movie tries hard with a sequence involving guns and heart-shaped smoke.

Matthew Vaughn is usually a director of colorful style, yet lately he’s been making movies where the plot gets lost after a good opening. His 2021 “The King’s Man” had the same issue with good actors and a superb villain who gets killed 20 minutes in. Then the whole operation goes off the rails. It’s as if he only liked the concept and following studio dogma sapped all enthusiasm. “Argylle” has the same problem. It opens strongly with an idea we want to see play out all the way to the end. Why did it need to become the very thing it starts off mocking? This movie feels sluggish and timid, because it tries too hard to be a “blockbuster.” As the last few months have shown, audiences are growing tired of the same old formulas. A filmmaker with this much talent shouldn’t shy away from turning the rules upside down.

Argylle” releases Feb. 2 in theaters nationwide.