(from left) Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Aidan (Sam Rockwell) in Argylle, directed by Matthew Vaughn.

Argylle is Matthew Vaughn’s first non-comic book movie in 20 years – if you count the Kingsman series as comic book movies. (They were inspired by Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic, so Beat policy is yes, they count.) To borrow Kingman’s tailoring metaphor, Argylle is very much cut from the same bolt of cloth as those spy romps, just fashioned into a more PG-13 outfit. 

If you were paying any attention to the promos for the movie you know it’s about author Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose super popular series of spy novels comes so close to the truth that real spies start coming after her, interrupting her life as a quiet cat lady. Elly soon finds herself under the protection of super spy Aidan (Sam Rockwell) who can demolish a train full of assassins, jump off buildings and drive to safe houses with the best of them. Also joining in the fleeing for their lives fun, Elly’s cat, Alfie, who rides around in a bubble backpack that is apparently a real thing. 

The trailer reveals that Henry Cavill, John Cena, Samuel L. Jackson, Bryan Cranston, Dua Lipa and Catherine O’Hara are also involved in the caper, and since the central mystery of the film is “Who is the real Agent Argylle?” it will spoil most of the plot to reveal who they play, but if you do the casting in your head, it’s not too hard to figure out. Cranston is the head of “The Directive,” the evil spy network that is trying to get Elly and what she may know about the location of a highly sensitive file. O’Hara is Elly’s mom, fretting about whether the last chapter of her latest book really finishes the story or not. Cavill and Cena are, what else, super spies. Dua Lipa plays a femme fatale, and Ariana DeBose sings the title song. Samuel L. Jackson plays Samuel L. Jackson. 

Vaughn made two of what I consider the best, or at least most essential, superhero movies with Kick-Ass, an ultra violent exploration of vigilantism and bullying and X-Men: First Class. The latter has some of the best character development in a Marvel movie, and it’s probably the best mutant team movie yet made (not really a lot of competition, Logan aside.) On both he was aided by his long-time collaborator, screenwriter Jane Goldman, who added a lot to both films and the Kingsman series, but sat this one out. 

With the Kingsman movies, to be honest, Vaughn has fallen into a pattern, taking arch boarding school tales like Flashman and mixing them with James Bond tropes. It’s all stiff upper lips and classism, mixed with some dynamite action scenes and lots of bullet casings falling to the floor. 

Argylle doesn’t stray far from that formula or tone, adding in an American heroine but the same level of stylized violence and unthinkable body counts.

Elly and Aiden flee from a train battle in the Rockies to searching for clues in London, fighting it out in “impossible odds” battles at every stop. Howard is, on paper, an unlikely action hero, but her Jurassic Park outings proved she could hold her own. Here, she runs in sensible flats rather than high heels, however, and provides expressions of horror or determination as called for.  Rockwell is always excellent at fading into his roles, and the super efficient spy is shot with his weaselly regular guy filter. Everyone else is just about who you expected them to be. 


(from left) Argylle (Henry Cavill), Lagrange (Dua Lipa) and Wyatt (John Cena) in Argylle, directed by Matthew Vaughn.

And that’s the thing. I saw most of the twists coming as soon as I saw the set-up and if you want to see Henry Cavill looking dangerous in a green velvet stand collar jacket and an unflattering hair cut, well, you will get that. If you want to see Bryan Cranston being evil, you’ll get that, too. If you want to see Jackson getting caught up in watching a basketball game, mission accomplished. Everyone is essentially playing themselves – in a star-studded affair like this, that is often the case, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, I just wish the story had been…more interesting (like Tom Jones flying the plane in Mars Attacks!.) The “author gets caught in her own story” trope has been done before, and recently, with the far more charming and fun The Lost City. The revelation of Agent Argylle’s true identity is a shock – it’s shocking what a non surprise it is. 

If there is a point to the movie it’s that super spies can actually be just regular folks like Howard and Rockwell, not mega humans like Cena and Cavill. Rockwell is such a regular folk that I’ve probably seen him having brunch at my usuals more than any other celebrity. He blends right in. 

Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Alfie the Cat (Chip) in Argylle, directed by Matthew Vaughn.

If there is any invention to the film, it’s the action scenes, as always with Vaughn. There’s one set in plumes of multi colored smoke that is quite cool. Another involves ice skating, and I admit, that one was not something I had seen before and while it may not surpass the church scene in Kingsman, it comes close. But even here, things petered out. The movie starts with the action scenes set to classic but underexposed disco tunes, which I thought was a nice conceit. Then they snuck in their own modern disco song, and it turns into just more cross-marketing. (There’s also the last Beatles song included.) 

Matthew Vaughn is obviously a very talented filmmaker, but he’s sort of turned into a one trick pony: spy action films, and particularly heartless ones at that. Kick-Ass and Kingsman are all about meanness and violence, and we don’t really care about the characters in Argylle because he doesn’t seem to. According to interviews, he hopes this spins into yet ANOTHER spy/action series (although there are a couple of lines that call back to Kingsman that make you think it’s all one universe and hint, stay for the mid-credits scene.) If the dude is happy just making his polyester spy flicks and not a bespoke story, I guess it’s his life and people keep giving him money to do it, so carry on as you were.  (To be fair, as a producer he’s made things from Tetris to Rocketman.)

Chip as Alfie the Cat in Argylle, directed by Matthew Vaughn.

Now I know what you are asking: what about the CAT? When I mentioned that everyone plays themselves, that extends even to Alfie the cat, who was played by Vaughn’s own cat, or rather his wife Claudia Schiffer’s cat, Chip. Cats are notoriously hard to film, and Chip doesn’t do much besides ride around in a backpack and show up for occasional cuddles without scratching – something cat thespians sometimes struggle to do. He pulls off a scene of tucking into a bowl of cat chow with gusto, however. 

In my educated opinion, the two greatest cat performances on film are Thomasina and the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis, who was working with an excellent scene partner, Oscar Isaac. Chip doesn’t show that range, but he does have a huge role, so cat-lovers who fantasize about bringing their kitty on a world spanning spy caper (you know you do) will get their wish. 

PS: not only is the cat dome backpack real, they have made one to match the one in Argylle. It’s all about the marketing, I tells ya.