“You and I, we’re not so different, Agent Argylle.”
Those who saw 2021’s Reminiscence will recall the various problems with its script, pacing, and overall execution. Yet it was tempting for many critics to give that movie a pass because it was the kind of big-budgeted piece so rarely found anymore. Even I was willing to look past that film’s flaws because of the joy I felt at its mere existence. More than two years later comes the unthinkable: a blockbuster not driven by comics or the Fast “family” named Argylle, a fun actioner puzzle of a movie that’s genuinely worthy of praise and excitement. Although marketing for the movie promises recognizable faces and action galore, the movie may be an immediate turn-off for audiences who can’t be bothered to invest in a property they’re not already familiar with. But for a special faction of the movie-going public longing for a blockbuster with tongue-in-cheek hilarity and solid action that doesn’t talk down to its audience, Argylle will be pure catnip.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn, Argylle tells the story of bestselling spy novelist Elly Conway (Bryce-Dallas Howard), who lives a quiet life, despite being the world’s foremost literary authority on espionage. Unsure of how to finish the latest installment of the book series named after her main character Argylle (Henry Cavill), Elly boards a train for a visit to her childhood home. Onboard, she encounters a real spy named Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who informs Elly that her books foretell the illegal actions of a secret organization out to get her. With nowhere to turn, Elly finds herself joining Aidan on an adventure right out of one of her books.
When I said there were elements of Argylle that might be hard for audiences to accept (or make them turn away altogether) this wasn’t an exaggeration. In an age when virtually every blockbuster comes with ready-made lore that the audience has spent years absorbing, Argylle forces those watching to rely on their genre savviness to help carry them through. The twists are plentiful in Argylle, with each one raising the stakes so high, that audiences might easily find themselves exhausted. The same goes for the plot itself, which borders on dense with all of its double crossings, mistaken identities, and motivations. Admittedly, Argylle‘s plot calls for an active audience, the kind that likes to lean forward in their seats as they try to connect the dots, rather than a passive one. Meanwhile, the movie’s brand of comedy asks its audience to laugh at a collection of jokes that are a mix of postmodern, slapstick, and dark comedy. Gags such as a cat being dropped from a rooftop and a prolonged train ride where Aidan must defeat a collection of unorthodox assassins call on a kind of British sense of humor that will not be for all tastes, but will always garner laughs from those who get the jokes.
What might end up turning people away from the movie is actually what makes Argylle such an exuberant adventure ride. Every scene of this movie feels like the product of a filmmaker no longer restrained by the history of a collection of comic books or dreaded audience expectations. Taking the place of those elements is the kind of blank canvas most directors like Vaughn can only hope for, one that he uses every inch of to paint a colorful creation that, while not reaching the level of masterpiece, can definitely be called a true piece of pop art. There’s a reverence that flows throughout all of Argylle that’s so clearly felt, allowing Vaughn carte blanche to turn the spy comedy on its head. In particular, the aforementioned train ride and a dance sequence that takes place amid tear gas and gunfire are both filled with such subversive glee, that they alone are enough to push Argylle into the realm of a new spy comedy favorite. The excitement from Vaughn and screenwriter Jason Fuchs can be found in these and virtually every other set piece in the movie. It’s an excitement that extends to the multitude of twists, the layered plot, and especially in a female protagonist that is one of the best to ever exist in a Matthew Vaughn film.
It’s not too early to find one of 2024’s most eclectic ensembles in the cast of Argylle. Besides Howard, Rockwell, and Cavill, there’s Catherine O’Hara, Ariana DeBose, Bryan Cranston, Sofia Boutella, Dua Lipa, John Cena, and Samuel L. Jackson all showing up to play. But it’s Howard and Rockwell who carry the film in terms of chemistry (romantic and otherwise), timing, and in the affinity they have for their characters. Vaughn knows how to play to their respective strengths (his nonchalance, her glowing nature) and they in turn plant themselves firmly on his wavelength for what ends up being two of the most enjoyable performances of either actor’s career.
The most refreshing element of Argylle is how it serves as a reminder that Vaughn is more than a director who brings comic book series to life. While the filmmaker was always able to still find a way to let his own style come out in carefully measured bursts, there’s no doubt that Vaughn’s distinct sensibilities have always been at battle with whatever comic book fare he was adapting to the screen. Argylle is less of a return to form for Vaughn so much as it’s a return to promise. It’s the same promise found in his striking noir-charged debut, 2004’s Layer Cake, and in the sweeping adventure of his Neil Gaiman re-imagining, Stardust. While there’s been much to like about some of the time he’s spent in the world of comic book movies, Argylle shows the kind of Vaughn we got excited about many years ago; a filmmaker with an eye for cinema that’s as kaleidoscopic and imaginative as can be.