A timid spy novelist becomes unwittingly embroiled in some real-life espionage in Argylle, a twist-laden, well-executed thriller opening in Prague and cinemas worldwide this weekend. Bolstered by two especially appealing performances from Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell in the central roles, this one has enough surprises to keep us engaged throughout… until it runs out of tricks towards the very end.
Coming from Kingsman director Matthew Vaughn, Argylle allegedly ties into cinematic universe of that franchise, and features a mid-credits sequence that will perplex even those who have been paying attention four films in. It rivals The King’s Man as the strongest in the series, but the glib, faux-ironic tone of all these movies prevents us from really investing in their world.
The lore is deep. Argylle is ‘based’ on the novel of the of the same name by Elly Conway, a globetrotting spy thriller about a James Bond-like secret agent that was released just a few weeks ago. The movie stars Henry Cavill as the titular secret agent, who does the whirlybird with seductress LaGrange (Dua Lipa) in a dynamite opening boogie woogie number set to the catchy Electric Energy before pursuing her through a seaside Greek town with the help of agents Wyatt (John Cena) and Keira (Ariana DeBose).
But don’t get too involved: Argylle pulls back the curtain within the first ten minutes of the film to reveal these characters as fictional creations of the fictional author Elly Conway, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, narrating her latest adventure at a Colorado book reading. That real-world Argylle novel? Publicity for the film authored under a pseudonym that was shamelessly rumored to be none other than… Taylor Swift?
With Elly struggling to finish her latest Argylle novel – intended to be the final chapter in her character’s adventure – she takes the train up to see mom (Catherine O’Hara) and work out the key story details. But when real-deal secret agent Aidan (Sam Rockwell) takes a seat across from her, Elly is thrust into a plot (literally) taken from the pages of her books as the pair must escape a network of goons sent after them by the villainous Ritter (Bryan Cranston).
Yes, after all that complicated backstory that delves into ARG territory, Argylle is yet another in a long line of fish-out-of-water romance-adventure films that have been done to death in the 40 years since Romancing the Stone, seen as recently as last year’s Ghosted, with Chris Evans and Ana de Armas, and 2022’s The Lost City, starring Sandra Bullock and Brad Pitt.
Or… is it? Just when you think you might have Argylle‘s narrative figured out, Vaughn and screenwriter Jason Fuchs unravel another major story shift in the middle of the second act. The result is a rare thing in modern Hollywood movies – a genuine surprise – and despite what feels like a good 30 minutes of exposition to make sense out of it, the movie builds up enough good will to push it through a protracted climax.
Rockwell and Howard take center stage here and share some real chemistry, especially during the first half of the film as Elly contrasts this scruffy spy against her fictional ideal. Rockwell is as effortlessly charismatic as always (his come-fight-me footwork is especially adorable), but after disappearing into the background of the Jurassic World movies, Howard’s charming turn here is a revelation.
Decked out in a dark green velvet suit and a Biff Tanner haircut, Cavill is a real hoot as the fictional Argylle, though he’s a much less prominent part of the movie than promotional material might lead audiences to expect. Still, climactic hints suggest he may be a larger part of the Kingsman-Argylle Cinematic Universe in the future.
Like the Kingsman movies, Argylle exists in a world between James Bond and Austin Powers: it never takes itself seriously, but doesn’t really have any jokes, either. The result is breezy and fun, but in an artificial kind of way; if the filmmakers and even the characters in the movie don’t seem to approach the narrative with any sense of gravity, the audience won’t, either.
That puts a hard ceiling on how satisfying something like this can be, but thanks to some inventive staging (that climactic smokescreen shootout is a wow), a toe-tapping soundtrack, appealing lead performances, and one or two real surprises along the way, Argylle scores just about as high as possible.