In The Simpsons episode “Krusty Gets Kancelled, there’s an early announcement of the arrival of Gabbo. The citizens of Springfield are led to believe it’s a big deal based on the aggressive ad campaign for it. I know it’s not Argylle’s fault that the marketing has leaned heavily into making certain aspects of this colorful spy action comedy seem like a major event for the cinema of early 2024. Still, I couldn’t help but think of the comparison. That is where it ends though, as the real agent Argylle is not a subpar ventriloquist dummy like Gabbo. And fortunately, the movie reveals certain things earlier than one may expect. With all that being said, while way too long and packed with plot, I had a pretty good time watching director Matthew Vaughn dare to be crowd-pleasing with Argylle.
The story revolves around Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), the author of a popular novel series focused on the adventures of secret agent Argylle. As it turns out, the events depicted in this series are lining up too closely with a secret organization, bringing out many people who seem to be after Elly (and her beloved cat, Alfie) under the orders of Bryan Cranston’s Ritter. Fortunately for Elly, Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a talented spy, has made it his mission to keep her safe. As the two work together to help Elly finish her latest book to ideally reveal even more secrets, there may just be one key story point that will change everything.
A key element I quite enjoyed was the visualization of Elly’s novels. The film opens with a very elaborate action sequence, clearly winking at Bond. Henry Cavill stars as this version of Argylle, and even gets to pal around with John Cena’s Wyatt as his partner in the field. It’s here that we get to understand what kinds of books these are, and if I’m hearing it right, it seems like the film knows they’re not actually very good. More of the junky airport novel variety. With scenes that find Elly rewriting things on the spot while we watch Cavill adjust to the changes, there’s an angle I was having fun with.
Of course, the real premise is how actual spies and secret syndicates enter Elly’s life, so the action becomes real. I can’t say I was initially more or less enamored with this idea, as I could only speculate about where it was going. On top of that, I’m all for Rockwell having an extended period of time to play this high-energy smart-aleck, complete with fighting skills and a breezy way of handling bad guys and banter. He and Howard together are mostly fine, but it’s the sort of film that one hopes can benefit from finding more for Elly to do beyond needing saving most of the time.
Without going any further on the story, I can say that once the cat is let out of the bag, it does allow Vaughn to dive deeper into his bag of tricks in terms of the more outlandish set pieces he’s fully capable of delivering. As one who’s shown an equal level of talent for handling action scenes in mainstream studio films (X-Men: First Class, his Kingsman series) and engaging in offbeat sorts of colorful comedy (Kick-Ass, Stardust), there are plenty of creative set pieces allowing him the chance to play with the types of things expected from these kinds of blockbusters, albeit done with vibrant colors and a certain sensibility that feels more inviting. Whether it’s a dance fight involving smoke canisters or one of the more creative uses of “ice skating” I’ve seen, it’s a lot of fun when this film is firing on all cylinders.
Of course, that also means there’s a big ‘but’ in there, and it comes in the form of how overstuffed with plot this movie is. That would not necessarily be an issue if the film could ride along smoothly while negotiating its twists and turns, but that’s not what’s happening. Instead, the more that gets revealed, the more times it feels like the movie needs to stop in its tracks to dive into these various revelations. It gives Argylle a bit of a lopsided feel, not unlike the Kingsman sequels, and by the end of it all, as much fun as I’m having with the action, it also feels like the film is exhausting itself to get where it needs to go. Not helping is that the stakes are, ultimately, not incredibly high for a movie so focused on spies, government secrets, and so on.
However, Argylle is not without other charms. Along with the stars mentioned, the film also features Samuel L. Jackson, Catherine O’Hara, Dua Lipa, Ariana DeBose, Sofia Boutella, and others. I can’t say all of them had a lot to offer, but for a globetrotting film that can sometimes feel too enclosed in its settings, at least it frequently felt as though Vaughn was trying to fill the frame with something or someone. And I don’t know how much I need to say about this cat (played by Chip), but its presence does feel additive overall when it comes to amusement.
Given how much this film wants to play with Elly’s reality, there is something about the tone that sometimes feels off. Finding that balance later, when it’s clear what’s real and what isn’t, means going along with outrageous situations that were deliberately separated from the real world earlier in the film. Clearly, that’s part of the point, but a more focused feature could have perhaps held onto novel-based antics rubbing up against reality in a more effective way for more of the movie. Maybe that’s just me wishing this film gave Cavill and Cena even more to do, as they were undoubtedly game to dive into the silliness of their spy characters.
If one’s wondering whether Argylle lives up to Gabbo expectations, well, I don’t quite think this movie is enough to get Krusty the Clown off the air. Those sky-high sorts of expectations aside, I like Vaughn and his continual choices to deliver fresh takes on action for the mainstream crowd. Even with a PG-13 rating somewhat lowering just how creatively expressive he could be here, I had enough fun with Argylle, thanks to the game cast and some of its general inventiveness. Tighten up the focus a bit, and perhaps this kitty would really purr. As it stands, it’s an enjoyable spy game.