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Argylle

Not content with just one star-studded action-comedy spy franchise to his name, ‘Kingsman’ filmmaker Matthew Vaughn starts another.
By Sarah Ward
February 01, 2024
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By Sarah Ward
February 01, 2024
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For the past decade, spy films have been Matthew Vaughn's caper, thanks to Kingsman: The Secret Service, Kingsman: The Golden Circle and The King's Man until now. With Argylle, he's still being playful with a genre that he clearly loves but isn't precious about, and he's also approaching espionage antics from another angle. 80s action-adventure comedy Romancing the Stone, which isn't about secret intelligence operatives, is one of this page-to-screen effort's blatant inspirations. Something that both do have at their centres: writers caught up in scenarios that would usually only happen on paper. 2022's The Lost City took the same route — but Argylle throws in a touch of North by Northwest, and also gets meta about its own origins. And no, Taylor Swift didn't write the source material.

For his eighth feature, which hits 20 years after he made his directorial debut with the Daniel Craig (Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery)-starring Layer Cake, Vaughn adapts the novel that gives Argylle its name; however, the specifics aren't quite that simple. The IRL title is only being published as the flick hits cinemas, starting a franchise on the shelf. That said, the film — which is similarly aiming to begin a series — jumps to a later as-yet-unreleased book. Those tomes are credited to Elly Conway, which is the name of the movie version of Argylle's protagonist. In the feature, Elly is also an author who has written a saga about spies. Back in reality, who she really is has sparked a frenzy, hence the theories that she could be one of the world's biggest pop stars amid a massive world tour and a huge concert film. Again, despite Swifties' dreams, that speculation needs to be shaken off. 

To recap, this is the spiel: Vaughn directs a picture from a book saga that's just reaching shelves, doesn't kick off with the initial tome and works in an iteration of its mystery author. Within the movie, Elly (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World Dominion) isn't an unknown but she is happiest out of the limelight, as turning down a date for an evening at home writing with her Scottish Fold cat Alfie illustrates early. Her in-film novels are already smashes, with just one problem. As she discovers after penning the draft of her fifth book just after readers get their hands on the fourth, and much to her surprise, her plots bear more than a little resemblance to reality. So informs actual agent Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell, See How They Run), who also advises that a villainous espionage outfit called The Division is after her because her texts are so prophetic. 

To add another layer to the Argylle trifle, Elly sees her fictional agent — the eponymous Argylle (Henry Cavill, The Witcher) — beyond her imagination. He's a Bond-type right down to the bar altercation with a femme fatale (Dua Lipa, Barbie). He's also a Mission: Impossible-style sort thanks to the team around him, including a trusty offsider (John Cena, Freelance) and tech guru (Ariana DeBose, Wish). With towering flat-topped hair, Argylle is a knowing spoof in a self-aware comedy, too. He's the stereotypical dashing vision of the undercover world, as juxtaposed with Aidan, who is introduced all scruffy and beardy on a train, blending in and earning Elly's incredulity when he says that spying is his gambit. The more that she gets pulled into the covert world, Argylle is also a blatant contrast to the writer herself; that there's more than one type of hero thrums within screenwriter Jason Fuchs' (Wonder Woman) script.

More twists, more reveals, more zigzagging here and there (and, of course, everywhere) slip into a narrative that's unique in a way that's rare of late, especially when it comes to spies, action and big-budget big-screen fare. Argylle might be reaching screens with that did-Swift sheen and seemingly everyone that Vaughn knows in the cast — Cavill was in Stardust, Howard in the Vaughn-produced Rocketman, and Sofia Boutella (Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire) and Samuel L Jackson (The Marvels) both have a place in the Kingsman realm — but it isn't an already-known property. That said, there's a game of connect the dots at work for anyone who has seen any action flicks this century, spotting familiar parts. Still, with the visual flair that he's been known for since making the switch from solely producing (including Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch), Vaughn leans into the fun and spectacle of it all. This strives to be a just-go-with-it affair, putting its audience in the same situation as Elly as she tries to stay alive, outwit The Division, and work out what's going on and why.

Howard, Rockwell, Catherine O'Hara (Pain Hustlers) as Elly's mother and Bryan Cranston (Asteroid City) as the head honcho overseeing the quest to capture the author: they all help make Argylle easy to spend time with. Rockwell, though, is the feature's mood ring. He's having a ball with the looseness that made him such a captivating performer long before he had a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and he nails Argylle's aimed-for vibe. His Confessions of a Dangerous Mind casting two decades back also comes to mind. Yes, he dances as he adores to, multiple times. He's always giddily entertaining. That Argylle doesn't earn the same label consistently is partly down to its running time: it might've more often if there wasn't 139 minutes of it.

If the whole film all seems gleefully OTT, with its winks, nods, parodies, nesting-doll setup, more-is-more embrace of extravagant fights and frays — and kinetic chases and confrontations as well — and unconvincing CGI around the cat, Vaughn and his wife Claudia Schiffer's own, that's also been Vaughn's caper for even longer than he's been playing with spooks. In bringing Kick-Ass to the screen from Mark Millar's comic, then the latter's Kingsman afterwards, plus helming X-Men: First Class in the middle, the filmmaker hasn't been one for the grounded approach. It doesn't always pay off for him. The first Kingsman was undone by its ending, the second a subpar carbon copy and the two pictures' prequel thoroughly superfluous. But the energy of the cast, the Romancing the Stone throwback, plus standout setpieces involving skating through oil on knives and pirouetting through a gunfight amid rainbow-hued smoke grenades, prove both a lot and mostly enough to start off Vaughn's latest espionage franchise.

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