There’s a moment in this spy comedy take on Romancing The Stone where the central author struggles to write dialogue for her character. She must find a solid, romantic punchline for a sexual moment but can’t muster a decent line for her spy character. She admits she has nothing, and the words fade away. Yet even in this moment of jumping between the author’s reality and fantasy, there’s not even a decent punchline for this familiar bit about writer’s block.
Argylle is a film that feels like it’s bouncing all around similarly, trying to find absurd stuff that sticks in this spy comedy. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Elly Conway, famed author of a series of spy novels with her central character Agent Argylle. In her head, Argylle is a tall and handsome spy portrayed fittingly by the suave Henry Cavill. So when Elly finds herself (and her cat) being targeted for her books being too astute on the world of spies, she’s hoping the agent working alongside her will be Cavill. It turns out it’s Sam Rockwell as Agent Aidan, showing up looking more like he’s ready to play The Dude in a remake of The Big Lebowski. He’ll later shave, so don’t get your hopes up.
Director Matthew Vaughn is known for making his franchise of Kingsman films over-the-top spy adventures, but he’s weirdly subdued for this film. It’s not that he doesn’t try to inject some absurdity into this picture to make it live up to its spy comedy promises in the marketing. Sam Rockwell plows into his action scenes with some decent one-liners, and Elly has some okay fish-out-of-water expressions to all the carnage, complete with her cat in a backpack for reaction shots and meows. But, much like Rockwell’s dancing (which seems almost to be a contract requirement of all his roles), it all feels very standard, despite the odd sight of Elly later skating on oil while wielding knives and guns. There are also only so many times you can get funny reactions from the cat in this movie, and it comes close to exhausting them (don’t worry, that cat doesn’t die, despite Rockwell chucking him off a roof in one scene).
All the opportunities are there for a good spy movie, yet they only feel half-presented for all the fun. Consider how the supporting cast of accomplished actors is utilized. Bryan Cranston plays the villain and gets a chance to dip between sinister villain and wholesome dad, but not as much as I would’ve loved. Catherine O’Hara feels like she’s only present for the big punchline of her secret accent. John Cena is briefly portrayed as the big imaginary sidekick of Argylle, his only notable scene being that he can easily pull a thin woman off a motorcycle. As for Samuel L. Jackson, I’m wondering if anybody would believe that he spends half his time in the movie watching a Lakers game on TV.
As a spy comedy, Argylle is fine, but as a Matthew Vaughn film, it’s about as plain as socks. For as much as audiences would balk at Vaughn getting too gross and violent with his Kingsman movies, I missed that viciously absurd nature, especially in a film like this that would use more subversiveness amid its twists. The film is best summed up in the sequence where Rockwell and Howard battle with gunmen while chucking colorful smoke bombs to the tune of a romantic song. It’s a pretty fight with bright colors and silly dance choreography, but Howard and Rockwell remain mostly in one spot, rarely moving a few dance steps down the hall of henchmen. That’s Argylle: A spy comedy that wants to be ridiculous but rarely goes anywhere.