Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World franchise) is Elly Conway, the reclusive author of a series of best-selling espionage novels, whose idea of bliss is a night at home with her computer and her cat, Alfie. But when the plots of Elly’s fictional books—which center on secret agent Argylle and his mission to unravel a global spy syndicate—begin to mirror the covert actions of a real-life spy organization, quiet evenings at home become a thing of the past. Accompanied by Aiden (Oscar® winner Sam Rockwell), a cat-allergic spy, Elly (carrying Alfie in her backpack) races across the world to stay one step ahead of the killers as the line between Elly’s fictional world and her real one begins to blur.
Matthew Vaughn made his Bond back in 2011 with X-Men: First Class. Then he made it again in 2014 with the absolutely outstanding Kingsman: The Secret Service. Fast forward another decade and he’s doing it once again with Argylle. An enigma of a film which may or may not be based on a book you can pick up in stores now.
Bryce Dallas Howard plays Elly Conway, a renowned spy novelist. Conway also happens to be the author of said real-world Argylle book. On a trip to visit her parents Elly is approached by Aiden (Sam Rockwell) who claims to be a real-life spy. He believes Elly’s books hold the key to a mystery involving a real terrorist organisation. Thus begins a race around the globe to find a master file which holds the key to taking down the terrorist.
Vaughn has more than proven himself capable with the genre. With First Class he took the best of the 1960’s Bond movies and applied them perfectly to the comic book world. Then with Kingsman and its subsequent sequels and spin-offs he showed a versatility and an ability to poke fun at espionage media in the most satirical fashion. With Argylle, Vaughn appears ready to take his storytelling to the next level. Working with writer Jason Fuchs, Vaugh has produced his twistiest movie yet. If it were a contortionist the narrative would tie itself in knots. Yet somehow the film is nothing short of dynamite viewing.
Vaughn’s mind-boggling grasp on reality begins with Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) and support crew (Ariana DeBose and John Cena) on a mission in Greece. They’ve been sent to track down a mysterious femme fatale (Dua Lipa) who holds the key to finding the source of the mysterious master file Macguffin. It’s all very Mission: Impossible and quickly spirals out of control. But not before Cavill can flex some of his more comedic muscles. What ensures is a catalogue of spy tropes which will leave the audience questioning the authenticity of the film. But wait. That is the very point of these sequences as it’s revealed this is simply a dream-like recounting of Conway’s latest novel. A story within the story as it were. But with there being a mysterious “Elly Conway” (apparently not Taylor Swift) existing in our world perhaps it’s a story within a story, within a story. At this stage only Vaughn himself seems to know.
Elly, the BDH version not the non-Swift version, has a pretty complex set of quirks. She lives in a stunning lakeside house with her beloved cat Alfie. She doesn’t do planes. She doesn’t do romance. In fact she doesn’t do much other than work. That and drink whiskey, you might want to keep an eye on the brand on that one as well. She does have a great connection with her mother (Catherine O’Hara) with whom she irons out the kinks in her manuscripts.
From here on out I’ve got to be careful. Don’t want to let the cat out of the bag.
Despite what the posters would have you believe it’s Bryce Dallas Howard who is the lynchpin of the film. It’s incredible to see her taking on this kind of role. It plays to so many of her strengths in both comedy and action. To say the performance is versatile would be too delicate. In the first half Howard loses herself in the fragility of Elly’s reality. Doting over her cat and finding herself lost in a world which had previously only existed in her books. Later both Howard and her character are able to explore their strength and identity. Something which plays heavily in to the film’s underlying message of self discovery.
Most of Howard’s time on screen is spent with both a CGI cat and with Rockwell. The two have dependable chemistry which is able to reinforce the relationship in Fuchs’ screenplay. There’s plenty of typical Vaughn back-and-forth in the dialogue but glimpses of something deeper show a maturity which films like Kick-Ass lacked.
Argylle plays Rockwell and Cavill against each other brilliantly. As Agent Argylle, Cavill is Conway’s vision of the perfect man. The suave, sophisticated spy taken straight from the pages of a Fleming novel. He’s everything that Rockwell’s Aiden isn’t. It’s just one of the many ways in which Vaughn and Fuch’s challenge audience expectation.
There’s a huge supporting cast. Most of which we only merely glimpse. Aside from the aforementioned DeBose, O’Hara and Cena there’s Bryan Cranston as the head of the villainous Directorate organisation. Cranston twirls his moustache with the best of them but ultimately becomes a villain nobody is likely to remember. His appearance often signposts twist in the film which many viewers will see coming. Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson as a former CIA director who often pops up when there’s exposition which needs depositing on the audience. Throw in brief appearances from Rob Delaney, Sofia Boutella and Emmett J. Scanlan and it’s clear that Vaughn name means star power. Even for the most insignificant of roles.
The success of Argylle will ultimately hang on the audience’s ability to roll with the punches. Fuchs’ script often moves at breakneck speed. Identities are questioned and revealed, plots thicken, twists are re-twisted to reframe and shift audience perspective. Some of that is predictable and signposted. But other moments come out of the blue and are more rewarding. Layered on top of Vaughn’s trademark stylised action and a heady mix of slow-mo-into-sped-up footage it’s a lot to take. Which would be fine if Argylle was a breezy 90 minutes. But coming in at almost 140 minutes means some of the narrative edges do begin to fray.
Cool cast, cool action and sweet needle drops. Argylle is able to overcome a bloated runtime to be a high energy, high camp fun time at the movies.