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Review: ‘Argylle’ is a Clichéd and Lackluster Spy Thriller that’s Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

February 1, 2024Ben MK

From the numerous eras of the Bond franchise to contemporary takes like the Bourne series and action-packed films like Atomic Blonde, the spy genre has been reinvented more times than you can shake a martini at. Still, for all those Hollywood revamps and reimaginings, there's something to be said for the irresistible appeal of a no-nonsense spy story. Whether it's the globetrotting adventure, the race to uncover state secrets, or the double-crossing that goes hand in hand with the game, espionage thrillers continue to have moviegoers on the edge of their seats like no other genre can. And with Argylle, director Matthew Vaughn is putting his own cinematic twist on that well-worn tradition, in this tale of an author who becomes caught up in a real-life version of the bestselling books she's written.

A former waitress from Colorado, Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) never imagined she'd be a celebrity. Then a life-changing skating accident happened, and Elly suddenly had the time to focus on her true passion — writing. Fast forward five years, and Elly's chart-topping novels featuring a debonair spy named Argylle (Henry Cavill) have taken the world by storm. But as she puts the finishing touches on Argylle's fifth adventure, Elly learns that not everything she's penned is fiction, when she stumbles into the middle of a very real conflict between a corrupt, clandestine intelligence organization known as the Division and a secret agent named Aidan (Sam Rockwell). In search of a master file that could bring the Division down once and for all, its ruthless director, Ritter (Bryan Cranston), has sent his best men to find Elly, whom he believes holds the key to uncovering the location of the file. What Ritter doesn't count on, though, is Aidan, who has a vested interested in protecting Elly, and who would go to any length to stop the Division from getting their scheming hands on the master file.

And so, with her feline best friend Alfie in tow, Elly finds herself reluctantly going way outside her comfort zone, as she and Aidan must stay one step ahead of the Division by following the trail of clues to such global destinations as London, England and the French countryside, where they also team up with Aidan's boss, former CIA director Alfred Solomon (Samuel L. Jackson). Along the way, however, something completely unexpected happens, when Elly comes to the startling realization that everything she thought she knew about her own life might be a lie. Could she play a more crucial role in this whole Division situation than she or anyone else ever anticipated? And what about the shocking similarities between her writing and the real-world events unfolding around her — could it simply be a coincidence that her imagination has led her to this point, or has she simply been duped into believing a set of false truths concocted to manipulate and prevent her from fulfilling her true potential?

Throw in a few star-studded appearances from the likes of John Cena, Dua Lipa, Catherine O'Hara and Ariana DeBose, and audiences themselves might be led to believe that they're watching a spy thriller with significantly more to offer than glossy production design, glitzy costumes and over-the-top action sequences. What becomes stunningly clear as Argylle awkwardly steamrolls its way from one eye-popping set piece to another, however, is just how thinly conceived its world is, how unbearable the dialogue can oftentimes be, and how much its narrative relies on been-there-done-that genre tropes, not to mention viewers' willingness to reject the fact that these characters just aren't even half as interesting as the movie makes them out to be.

Of course, the result still manages to at least be moderately entertaining. Once that initial fascination wears off, though, what moviegoers are inevitably left with is an overly long, overly tiresome, and overly clichéd attempt at kickstarting a new spy franchise that puts far too much emphasis on razzle dazzle and not enough on actual storytelling. Suffice to say, if you're looking for a mindless diversion, Argylle may be just the ticket. Everyone else, however, would be better off revisiting Vaughn's Kingsman series. After all, at least those films had a better grasp on the balance between garish showmanship and genuine substance.

Argylle releases February 2nd, 2024 from Universal Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for strong violence and action and some strong language. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 19 min.

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