Shy spy novelist Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) is pulled into the dealings of a shadowy underground syndicate remarkably like the character she’s created, a spy named “Argylle.”

Laura's Review: C-

Director Matthew Vaughn, who started off great with "Layer Cake" before beginning to backslide with “Kickass” and the "Kingsman" series continues down that path with a new film that suggests he’s trying to create his own franchise world (stick around for the post credits scene to see what I mean if you can make it through the 2 hour 19 minute running time).  Writer Jason Fuchs (2017's "Wonder Woman") has concocted one of those down-the-rabbit-hole yarns that think it’s cleverer than it is, each new ‘revelation’ both increasingly far-fetched and sloppily plotted (the main character never questioning how her ‘saviors’ could travel halfway around the world in a matter of hours or someone we thought was dead showing up just in time – on the deck of an oil tanker mid ocean).  Your enjoyment of “Argylle” will probably depend upon your enjoyment of the “Kingsmen” series, but those at least had Colin Firth and Taron Egerton.  This one has Bryce Dallas Howard and Bryce Dallas Howard has maybe two registers.

That said, her partner in crime throughout, Sam Rockwell, gives this movie a lot more than it deserves, the only member of the cast (other than the fictional characters, who are supposed to be clichés) giving his character shading.  He’s an unlikely action hero, but he makes it work and does so with humor and charm. 

After we meet Elly giving a reading of her fourth “Argylle” book, she goes to the lakeside home in Colorado she shares with her Scottish Fold Alfie to put the finishing touches on the fifth, but when she calls her mom (Catherine O'Hara), she gets unexpected criticism about its cliffhanger ending.  With mom pushing her to write another chapter to close the loop on the data file she’s left in limbo, Elly, who is averse to airplanes (so of course she’ll soon be on one), boards a train for a surprise visit home.  Down plops Aidan (Rockwell) in the seat across from her against her protestations, recognizes her and says he loves her books, then informs her he’s in espionage.  The next thing she knows, fists and bullets are flying and she and Alfie have paraglided off the locomotive hanging onto this stranger.

They’ll end up staying one step ahead of The Division, the same organization her spy character Argylle (Henry Cavill, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."), who Elly frequently sees in the mirror or standing in for Aidan, is fighting against, and, as Aidan explains, she’s in danger because her books have come too perilously close to the truth.  There is, of course, more to the story, its switchbacks causing whiplash for those intent on the action.  I found it difficult to care, the film wasting talents like O’Hara, Bryan Cranston as The Division head and Samuel L. Jackson as an ex-CIA chief who likes to laugh a lot.  Sofia Boutella of “The Mummy” and “Atomic Blonde” usually adds a dash of exotic mystery, but her Saba Al-Badr here is a throwaway role.  Ariana DeBose’s techie Kiera is a glorified cameo.  The film also features John Cena as the fictional Argylle’s partner Wyatt and singer Dua Lipa as the fictional villain, Lagrange.

A running gag about Aidan being allergic to Alfie isn’t funny and the film’s tag line, ‘the better the spy, the bigger the lie,’ is repeated ad infinitum.  Special effects are mediocre, Alfie replaced frequently with CGI.  Stunt doubles are often glaringly obvious.  The film’s big climax is preposterous, a figure skating finale featuring daggers thrust into the soles of combat boots as blades, the rink an oil slick.  Boy George, Nile Rodgers and Ariana DeBose contribute the original song ‘Electric Energy’ but the film’s theme is the Beatles’ recent posthumous release ‘Now and Then,’ a lesser work that is still far too good for this film.

Universal Pictures releases the Apple Original film "Argylle" in theaters on 2/2/24.  It will stream on Apple TV+ at a date yet to be set.