‘Argylle’ Review: Matthew Vaughn’s Spy Thriller Is a Bizarre Hodgepodge of Ideas

There are a lot of questions swirling around the book “Argylle” and it’s creation. For starters, it’s first-time author Elly Conway is a mystery (with rumors continuing to swirl that she’s actually Taylor Swift). The story of its publication and how deeply connected it was to director Matthew Vaughn remains unknown, though within the first few minutes of watching the film version of “Argylle” it seems pretty clear that Vaughn had to be a key player in it being written in the first place.

It’s one of the first truly bizarre elements in watching “Argylle,” which tells the story of mild-mannered author Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), author of the book series on which the film is based. Elly is a loner who, in spite of her fame and success, enjoys spending her days living on the lake, working in her pajamas and being a cat mom to the darling Alfie. But while on a train to visit her parents Elly meets Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a spy who tells Elly the stories in her books are true and that people are trying to kill her.

To say anymore is truly difficult because of how many different turns “Argylle” takes in its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime. The book version of “Argylle,” out now, actually has a plot focused on its titled character (played on-screen by Henry Cavill in a severe haircut), whereas this film only uses the character as a launchpad to showcase a fictional (?) version of Conway’s life. Howard is so charming and magnetic on-screen as Elly, a kindhearted, if very shy and anxious author who is so committed to her work she tells a handsome guy to sit in a different area of the train.

But once Elly meets Aidan the film turns into typical Vaughn-directed fare, albeit with a more subdued PG-13 rating. Rockwell and Howard have great chemistry, particularly in the third act when Elly’s backstory is properly revealed. The pair dance and fight, with one needle drop — to Leona Lewis’ version of “Run” — easily making its way into this writer’s best moments of 2024. Howard, especially, gets to have a strong leading role as the movie goes on, with numerous opportunities for both comedy and drama.

It’s almost enough to make you forget that Cavill himself is on the poster of this movie as the lead. Outside of Rockwell, Howard, Bryan Cranston and Catherine O’Hara (as Elly’s parents), the other A-list actors are given only a few brief scenes. Cavill, John Cena and Ariana DeBose open the film as the characters Elly writes about, but are as flat as they are on the page. Cavill, though, at least has fun with the character. Throughout the film Elly sees Argylle in moments where Aidan is fighting in a fun expectation vs. reality twist (where Aidan is sweating and being thrown around Argylle is fixing his hair and acting like Bond).

Though as the film goes on — with a runtime that feels at least 30 minutes too long — Cavill goes away leaving Howard and Rockwell to go on a series of globe-hopping adventures to find a shadowy Master Key, containing the agents of an equally shadowy rogue entity known as the Directorate. There are several needless moments of who’s zooming who that gets repetitive but, again, it’s great to see Howard get a meaty leading role even if she spends the first half whining and crying.

“Argylle” though is just too convoluted for its own good. In order to avoid backing itself into a corner the second half of the movie takes a sharp turn by explaining something about Elly’s past that undoes everything. If Elly has such a dark history how did she obtain a five-book deal with a publisher? Especially if what she knows is so dangerous? Why allow her to become a huge star with a massive social media following — that is only used as a god’s machine to find her in certain instances? There are also far too many scenes of Elly switching allegiances, some based on miscommunications and others based on contrived plot devices.

And the assumption that this is part one of a series of films seems a tad confusing. Is this a series of Argylle adventures? The adventures of Elly Conway? Some hodgepodge of both? Because if this film is a proof of concept, the Argylle conceit has more possibility than Elly’s story, no matter how good Howard is in the role.

“Argylle” is fun in spurts with a strong cast of characters that help you get through the overly exaggerated runtime. But the script boxes itself into a corner too often and falls into repetition. Howard and Rockwell have fun, but they carry the movie leaving little meat to work with for future adventures.

“Argylle” hits theaters on February 2.

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