" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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It’s sloppy, but Argylle wears just enough hair gel to grease the slides and ride out a mild recommendation.

Whirlybird

Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell on the run
Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell on the run

Director Matthew Vaughn is pulling off something of a magic trick that’s going unnoticed. It’s a mystery in itself, but, seemingly against all odds, he’s managing to create an entire cinematic universe out of a series of movies that haven’t really lit the box office on fire. It’s a mix of spy movie tropes, comic book humor and a dash of real history.

With the underappreciated (much reviled, more precisely) The King’s Man, Vaughn concocted a sort of drunk history that sets the stage for what’s become the Kingsman Universe. ¬†And now Argylle sits on the outer fringe of that universe. It’s not a Kingsman movie and its loose (O so loose) connection is really more of a tease, an inside joke, rather than a direct lineage.

Generally speaking, Vaughn’s movies are by design not everybody’s cup of tea. He goes out there — way out there — in Kick-Ass, an ultra-violent movie that plays with all manner of comic book tropes while creating its own legitimate world of mayhem. His other movies have followed suit, with varying degrees of violence, comedy and (gasp!) heart that support well-crafted stories.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Argylle is the wall-to-wall mayhem on display in the trailer plays out much differently in the context of the full 139-minute feature. Argylle’s much more mainstream, box office-friendly PG-13 than Vaughn’s best (the Kingsman movies all carry a well-earned R) , and maybe that’s part of the strain felt while watching the movie shift from the outlandish (the gunfight finale is a colorful tour de force) to the sweet (the innocence of the spy novel writer and her parents shifts to the other extreme of tranquility).

As choppy as it gets, it’s still an entertaining romp with plenty of twists.

Casting Shadows

An element that makes Argylle’s weak spots easier to forgive is the crazy-good cast. A hot (and humorous) cameo from pop star Dua Lipa get things started in high style. Henry Cavill proves he’s actually likable (and can display some personality) when he’s not trapped in a bleak Zack Snyder comic book opus. There’s also Bryan Cranston, Catherine O’Hara, Samuel L. Jackson, Sam Rockwell, John Cena and Ariana DeBose. Plus, thankfully, there’s Sofia Boutella, who reteams with Vaughn after co-starring in Kingsman: The Secret Service in a role that redefined “blade runner.”

At the center of Argylle is Bryce Dallas Howard, who’s co-starred in the Jurassic World series and directed episodes of The Mandalorian. Here, Howard plays Elly Conway, a cat-loving writer of spy novels who grudgingly collaborates with her mother on occasion.

Howard isn’t quite up to the role’s demands. In Romancing the Stone, Kathleen Turner was able to move from frumpy cat-loving romance writer to sultry lover and adventurer with tremendous ease. Here, Howard is asked to make a similar shift and while she has a lock on the clueless espionage writer (note the borderline oxymoron) who resides in the peaceful beauty of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, she doesn’t quite pull off all that’s asked of her character. It’s not the writing; it’s well-detailed and gets into some nice layers of intricacy. It’s the performance; Howard isn’t entirely credible in this role.

Nonetheless, Elly is a strong female lead at the dead center of Argylle and that is something too easy to lose sight of in all the action set pieces and cat jokes.

The Anarchist

Dua Lipa on the dance floor
Dua Lipa on the dance floor

Amid the comic book action and mayhem, it’s amusing Vaughn and screenwriter Jason Fuchs (Pan) slip in some helpful bumper sticker wisdom as Elly struggles to play it safe while she’s embroiled in a tale of global espionage that strangely mimics the action in her series of spy novels.

When a struggling writer asks Elly for advice at a book signing, Elly stresses the need to devote more time to do the things that are important to you.

But there’s another pearl thrown out there: focus on the next three feet in front of you, not the 10,000-foot ascent.

Vaughn handles this material so well, he makes it look easy. As has happened with Keanu Reeves and the martial arts action of the ever-expanding John Wick series, Vaughn has latched onto a fantastical espionage series which is starting to turn into quite an entertaining and interconnected world.

Argylle’s a bumpy ride through the country, but it’s still fun to take in a new part of Vaughn’s world.