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Review: Cat lady as secret agent? 'Argylle' should be a lot more fun and less of a headache

For months, one question has plagued moviegoers: “Who is the real Agent Argylle?” It’s a query posed by Samuel L. Jackson in the ubiquitous trailer for Matthew Vaughn’s action-comedy spy story “Argylle,” though there are more pressing questions that the trailer presents, such as: Who thought a flat-top on Henry Cavill was a good idea? Or: Why are we spelling "argyle" with two Ls?

Alas, those latter questions remain a mystery, but the film does take up the former, delving into the convoluted identity of the real Agent Argylle for an absolutely unbearable 2 hours and 19 minutes. It’s remarkable, really: “Argylle” has bone-deep structural issues on a fundamental level, but it is also a failure of directorial execution from top to bottom, resulting in what has to be one of the most expensive worst movies ever made. It’s honestly fascinating — something that should be studied in a lab.

This review will have to do. The good news is that there are a couple of bright spots in “Argylle” among all the digital green-screen dreck. The first is that it does have an amusing premise, which is that a mousy, anxiety-ridden spy novelist, Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), gets swept up in a real-life globetrotting espionage plot and it turns out she’s actually pretty good at it. She’s like if Jason Bourne were a cat lady, or if the Sandra Bullock vehicle “The Lost City” were less funny. Triangulate your expectations somewhere around there, and then downgrade them even lower.

Also on the plus side, it's a real treat to see Sam Rockwell onscreen again, doing his Sam Rockwell thing (dancing, being rakishly charming, holding down the emotional center of this airless train wreck). Rockwell plays Aidan, a real spy, not a fictional one, who scoops Elly off a train en route to her parents’ house. He informs her that her wildly popular novels following the adventures of Agent Argylle (the aforementioned flat-top Henry Cavill) are eerily prescient about real-world espionage events.

Aidan is racing against the nefarious organization the "Division” to capture Elly. They both want to uncover her final chapter and the whereabouts of a microchip from a hacker. What’s on the microchip? That doesn’t matter. What matters is Elly learning to get over her fear of flying, her anxious attachment to her cat Alfie, whom she totes around in a backpack, her attempts to embrace her own power and, of course, dancing with Sam Rockwell. The microchip is just the MacGuffin.

Now for the bad news, which is a lot. The script, by Jason Fuchs, is excessively repetitive and wordy with exposition, and Vaughn doesn’t bother with any “show don’t tell” visual storytelling, saving his image-making for a few wildly outlandish and silly action sequences. Of course, if you’ve seen a “Kingsman” movie, you know this is his thing, but with a lot more blood geysers. Since “Argylle” is PG-13, everything is bloodless, tame and juvenile.

“But it’s fiction,” one could argue, “It’s supposed to be fantastical.” Yes and yes. But half the movie is not fiction — we can excuse the common-sense-defying action in sequences where Henry Cavill and pop star Dua Lipa shred their vehicles through a hilly Greek village because it’s what’s on Elly’s page. You can see what they’re going for when Cavill’s Argylle starts mumbling through Elly’s writer’s block.

But the rest of the movie, in the "real world,” should feel more real, and nothing about it feels even remotely grounded. It feels like everyone is in this film — Bryan Cranston, Samuel L. Jackson, Ariana DeBose, Catherine O’Hara, John Cena, Richard E. Grant — and yet no one is in it at all. Each actor, aside from Howard and Rockwell, has an average of five minutes onscreen, usually spent in some inordinately cavernous room with two extras wandering around (the film was shot in June 2021, and it shows).

“Argylle” looks as flimsy and cheap as the ghastly gold gown poor Howard has to wear for the film’s third act (heinous crimes against costume design and hairstyling have been committed in this film). The script and performances don’t offer us any emotional truths either, aside from the absolutely Herculean effort that Rockwell puts in. He hoists this thing up on his back and carries it, bringing humor, heart and authentic emotion to his performance, even when Howard is twirling him around in a nondescript hallway filled with colored smoke. But one man can’t do it alone, and “Argylle” fails despite Rockwell’s appealing presence.

Vaughn leaves us with the vague threat that Agent Argylle will return in some form, but they must start from page one if it’s to be anything worth watching, because this outing certainly isn’t.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.