Someone once opined, perhaps facetiously, that there is a fine line between stupid and brilliant. There isn’t. There is a wide yawning chasm that would take a super-laser traveling at the speed of light several millennia to cross, and even then, it would only register on the far side as a faint glimmer in the oblivion of the abyss. Yet that glimmer would still be brighter than ARGYLLE, the latest from Matthew Vaughn who appears to have lost his sense of fun. And fun is the one indispensable element necessary to make a plot as loopy as the one here work. A frantic pace, wouldn’t hurt, nor would a heroine who is quirky and endearing. Alas. Just alas.
Instead, we have Bryce Dallas Howard as Elly Conway, a writer of very lucrative and exciting spy novels, but who is, herself, as bland as melty sugar- and fat-free ice milk, the generic brand, and just as disappointing when one was hoping for frivolously indulgent gelato. Elly a recluse, confining her blandness to the cocoon of a splendid house nestled amid the equally splendid Rocky Mountains. She has foresworn all relationships save for her short-eared cat, Alfie, and the crush she has on her creation, Agent Argylle played with a startled crew-cut and green velvet trappings by Henry Cavill.
When writer’s block strikes at the end of her fifth novel about Argylle, she packs Alfie into her cat backpack and hops a train to brainstorm with her mother (Catherine O’Hara) in Chicago. Mom has more than once helped her over the rough spots plot-wise, which makes up for the constant cajoling of her only child to find someone with whom to share her success. Unbeknownst to the author, her imagination has dreamed up adventures for Argylle that are more or less identical to the actual missions by America’s real spy network, making her the target of all sorts of spies who want to know why, and if she can predict any future missions. Some want to kill her, some want to kidnap her, and Elly can’t be sure who is whom, though she does throw in her lot with Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell), a scruffy spy with no boundaries by a great way of taking out the bad guys single-handed. Adventure ensues with Elly a fish-out-of-water on the run with Aidan (and Alfie) across the globe.
If only Mr. Vaughn had trusted the inherent silliness of the material. Instead of the farce with gasps and action we might have had, he goes for drama, which only points up how far-fetched that material is, and how ridiculous it is for him to ask us to take it seriously. The first few minutes, in which we find Argylle on a mission that wouldn’t recognize credulity with a homing device and a guide, is the most fun to be had as Argylle barrels through a sleepy Greek village after a blonde bombshell whose gold lame dress covers only a little less than he copious eyeliner. Cavill plays it with his tongue firmly in the cheek of his chiseled face. Back in the real world, Argylle flits and out Elly’s reality, but the situations in which he finds himself and Aidan, whom he replaces in Elly’s mind’s eye, are curiously lethargic despite the exertion, carnage, gunfire, and explosions. Adding to the moribund tone is dialogue as clumsy as Elly’s dancing later in the film, where she clumps about in Aidan’s arms as Rockwell’s copacetic vibes demonstrate how it should be done. It’s not just Howard’s physical lack of grace, which serves her well as a civilian being asked to stomp craniums, it’s the odd way her expression never really changes whether she smiles, looks confused, bemused, or gets angry. I mean, the muscles of her face move, but there is nothing emoted therefrom. Even when she does a call-out to her spike-heeled wearing character in the Jurassic Park films, it feels desperate and just a little embarrassing.
Fortunately, there are Rockwell and Samuel L. Jackson to liven the screen with their own brand of personal charm. Rockwell with his piquant and laid-back irony, not to mention a gift for movement that is arresting, and Jackson by being himself. Come on. You’d pay money to see him read the dictionary out loud, and so would I. Honorable mention to Brian Cranston as the evil head spy out to get Elly who has bonded inappropriately with his grandfather’s rifle, and O’Hara, who has created an implied backstory to her character that is far more interesting than most of the action. Ariana DeBose and Dua Lipa are just wasted, and that is a crime, not a misdemeanor. John Cena, on the other hand, is John Cena, this time in a Hawaiian shirt, which is neither good nor bad.
I will concede that there are some intriguing twists along the way that show a clever plot at work, but after being pummeled with ARGYLLE’s dull execution, it only makes the result that much more irksome. A premise that dares to scale the supernal heights of absurdity has been sunk before being allowed to soar. Alas. Just alas.