Argylle is a unique kind of awful. From a squandered cast to an insultingly bad plot, it almost deserves an award for incompetence. Failures like this are rare. One would think some element of the film would make it mildly amusing. Yet, what director Matthew Vaughn manages to offer is the cinematic equivalent of a dentist pick poking at gums.
The movie begins by introducing fictional Agent Argylle played by Henry Cavill. As his cheesy adventure comes to a cliffhanger close, the audience meets author Elly Conway portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard. At a book reading viewers learn about her immensely successful spy novels. On the verge of completing her fifth book, Elly is battling writer’s block when she encounters real life spy Aidan played by Sam Rockwell. He reveals that she’s wanted by a rogue spy organization because her books contain tidbits of truth, and they intend to use her next novel in some oracular fashion. The two then depart on a series of action-packed adventures which result in twists and turns leading to world-shattering truths.
On paper this sounds great. Sexy stars, action that doesn’t take itself seriously, Argylle is poised to be a fun ride. What comes together, however, is a cinematic slog that made me understand why animals chew off their limbs to escape traps. The constant twists throughout Argylle inspired the false hope it might suddenly shift into some satisfying conclusion. Unfortunately, the film never turns into anything entertaining. The brief moments anyone does anything amusing are sparks in the dark that only make the blackness that much darker.
Various plot twists are predictable at best, and eye rolling contrivances at worst. Red herrings flung at the audience don’t mislead so much as annoy. And the outcome of multiple narrative events makes zero sense. Professionalism dictates I don’t spoil the film with direct examples, but suffice it to say the script by Jason Fuchs, simply on its narrative, is so appallingly awful only the galactically stupid will miss craterous flaws in the plot.
Argylle tries to get away with certain abysmal moments by being intentionally cheesy. However, the cheese is spoiled. Ripping off better movies like Romancing the Stone (1984) and jamming together a variety of spy film clichés it endeavors to be some kind of metafiction. It’s clear that filmmakers are going for comedically ridiculous. And that would be fine if the film were ever funny.
Someone might make the argument that Argylle is jokingly criticizing action driven spy flicks. One of the three finale fights is a literal dance route with guns and grenades. To such folks I would say the ocean is full of rotting marine life and their vast quantity of excrement, yet it’s the salinity of the water that makes it undrinkable. In other words, just because something is cinematic metafiction critical of a genre doesn’t make it entertaining or clever. And those constant winks at formulaic conventions frequently makes Argylle irritating beyond tolerance.
Again, some of this would work if the film were funny. Over the top action might be fun if it offered a chuckle. Idiotic plot contrivances would be acceptable if anyone reacted amusingly. Instead, characters make snarky comments literally acknowledging how dumb the story is as if that admission excuses them. Such moments drag a rusty rake across the brain since the filmmakers clearly knew they’d written something terribly stupid but felt like comedic geniuses admitting it in a metafiction smoke screen masquerading as comedy. And this is when the dialogue isn’t akin to being slapped with surströmming, a fermented sea herring.
The audience is spoon fed plot and character descriptions. Events are constantly reiterated; in one instance characters literally repeat what each other has just said they need to do. At one point, Rockwell is just narrating in what feels like hours of exposition.
What’s worse is a solid cast used to no effect. Given excellent ingredients, director Matthew Vaughn mixes up a batch of roadkill stew. Bryce Dallas Howard does fine as Elly, but the role is hollow. The part is a one-dimensional knockoff, with a collage of clichés feigning depth, and constant plot twists keep the audience from ever really getting to know or care about her. Sam Rockwell is occasionally amusing; however, he sometimes seems like he signed on to be in a darker comedy. Samuel L. Jackson appears, but his role largely involves him watching the Laker’s play. (That’s not a joke. The majority of his screen time is him watching a basketball game without a single line.) Catherine O’Hara squeezes drops of comedy from a stone, but she can’t save Argylle alone. Finally, Henry Cavill and John Cena playing fictional spies are in the movie.
Having helmed the various Kingsman films, Matthew Vaughn is a solid choice for a director. Yet here the action is irksomely over stylized. Pardon the spoiler — there are several scenes where Bryce Dallas Howard keeps imagining Rockwell as her fictional Argylle. This means fights are constantly clipping as they cut in literal blinks seen on screen during which the character changes from Rockwell to Cavill to Rockwell. It’s distracting at best, annoying at worst, and altogether ultimately dumb.
Maybe the worst thing about Argylle is its presumptive plans for future films. The movie ends with a clear setup for a sequel it hasn’t in any way earned. Nothing here warrants inflicting another failure like this on audiences. Better to shoot this diseased pig before it pollutes the whole town.
Ridiculous stylized action that counts as eye candy only in the sense of rock candy thrown in the face. Terrible comedy that repeatedly fails to get even a pity sigh of amusement. Hiding behind foul cheesiness and irritating metafiction is an insultingly idiotic plot. The film’s torturously long 139-minute runtime never feels necessary. Maybe the best accomplishment is that flicks like Ishtar (1987) and Spies Like Us (1985) are no longer alone in the realm of the world’s worst spy comedies. Argylle is abysmal.