An unflatteringly lit and coifed Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Elly Conway, bookish author of five novels in a successful espionage series about a dashing James Bond/Ethan Hunt knockoff named Argylle, who’s played in fantasy sequences by Henry Cavill in a truly tragic brush cut. Argylle is a rogue operative trying to bring down the evil spy consortium the Directorate; Elly’s latest installment ends with a cliffhanger involving a MacGuffin in the form of a thumb drive containing crucial information.
During a train trip to visit her mother (Catherine O’Hara), the heroine is interrupted by a shaggy real-life spy named Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who informs her that the “Argylle” novels have an uncanny ability to reflect actual events, and the bad guys are after her to find out what happens next. Cue the globe-trotting mayhem.
So, right, it’s “Romancing the Stone” with secret agents instead of emeralds, or, rather, a charade of “Charade,” for moviegoers with long memories and classy tastes (the makers of “Argylle” are betting that audiences in 2024 won’t need either).
The problem with this movie — aside from overlength, shabbily shot fight choreography, an unconvincing CGI cat and a general air of unearned high spirits — is that it starts with a concept that’s unbelievable but enjoyably so (which is maybe why we go to movies in the first place), then proceeds to become more brain-crampingly preposterous as it goes. Elly has a crisis of identity that involves her looking in the mirror and “seeing” her fictional creation in clumsy interludes; the usually reliable Rockwell doles out plot information according to screenwriter Jason Fuchs’s timetable; twists upon twists leave the audience holding on to their suspension of disbelief until it shreds. The dialogue, which aspires to be snappy (Fuchs co-wrote the “Wonder Woman” screenplay), runs to the order of lines like “There’s a reason I’m called the Keeper of Secrets. Because I keep them.” Adding insult to injury, that gruesome “new” Beatles song “Now and Then” pops up throughout — a Frankenrock soundtrack for a movie increasingly on life support.
Left dangling in the wind are fine comic actors O’Hara, Bryan Cranston and John Cena. Also, despite what the posters suggest, pop star Dua Lipa is in “Argylle” only for the first five minutes, as an enemy agent with more oomph than anyone else in the movie. Others who receive a frustratingly scant moment of screen time are Oscar winner Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”), Rob Delaney (TV’s “Catastrophe”) and the venerable Richard E. Grant. I believe this is what’s called getting while the getting is good.
When Vaughn is cooking, his films can be stylish, self-satisfied junk food. “Argylle” leaves the style out of the equation — it’s filmmaking as processed interstate fare, high in calories, low in fiber, tasty until you’ve had enough of it and then you feel sick. There’s a stupid but undeniably fun 90-minute movie buried somewhere beneath all the overbearing digital plastic-ness — something you might watch on a plane and instantly forget. But I wouldn’t wait for the director’s cut; it’s likely to be longer.
Some housecleaning notes: Despite the online conspiracy theories of excitable Swifties, Taylor Swift did not write the film’s tie-in novel supposedly written by “Elly Conway”; anyway, she’s too busy saving the NFL from the Republicans. And, while the movie’s promotional campaign has popularized the catchphrase “Who is Argylle?,” after sitting through all 139 laborious minutes, I could easily tell you who Argylle is. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you why.
PG-13. At area theaters. Strong violence and action and some strong language. 139 minutes.
Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.substack.com.