An introverted spy novelist is drawn into the activities of a sinister underground syndicate.
He wears a tailored suit and flashes a disarming smile. He boasts the best team in the business. He’s suave. He’s charming. He’s… not actually in the movie. That’s right, Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) embodies everything we crave in a superhero spy, but director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass), in a cruel twist, denies us this cinematic pleasure. Instead, our plot follows novelist Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a spy who unwittingly pulls her into the shadowy world of real-life espionage. While the film’s poster tantalises us with an impressive ensemble cast including Cavill, Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), John Cena (The Suicide Squad), and Dua Lipa (Barbie), it seems their roles fell victim to the cutting room floor.
Argylle is amusing—in parts. It’s fun—occasionally. But it doesn’t bring anything new to the action comedy genre. Even Vaughn’s signature visual flair feels diluted, resembling a pale imitation of his earlier directorial successes. The excessive twists, predictable plot, and tiresome runtime further detract from the experience. Still, it offers a safe bet for viewers seeking lighthearted entertainment.
Matthew Vaughn has carved a niche as a reliable blockbuster director for quite some time. His ability to handle big-budget action was demonstrably elevated when he revitalised the X-Men franchise with X-Men: First Class (2011). He arguably reached his peak with Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), delivering a film that remains his crowning achievement. While the sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017), never threatened to surpass its predecessor, it was engaging nonetheless.
Unfortunately, much like his erstwhile collaborator Guy Ritchie (Snatch), Vaughn established himself as a filmmaker with a keen eye and a distinct style, combining crime and comedy in an almost unique way. However, both men seem incapable of evolving past their initial success, resulting in uninspired latter halves to their careers. For Vaughn, this can be seen in the fact that his last three outings in the director’s seat have been a sequel, a prequel, and now, a spin-off.
With the ending of Argylle strongly suggesting a sequel in the pipeline, audiences can anticipate more of Vaughn’s patented brand of comic-book filmmaking. However, the necessity of a follow-up remains debatable, beyond the obvious appeal of exploiting a financially successful title. Throughout Argylle, Vaughn appears eager to recapture the magic he achieved with Kingsman, but the film suffers from tonal inconsistencies that ultimately hinder its impact. Argylle falls somewhere between the earnestness of his debut Layer Cake (2004) and his absurdist parody in Stardust (2007), which admittedly is a weird place to land.
Many of the film’s problems could be attributed to the screenplay itself, although Vaughn’s penchant for slow-motion and overwrought fight scenes undoubtedly exacerbate the issue. However, the most glaring flaw of the film arguably lies with screenwriter Jason Fuchs: he wrote a story about the wrong characters.
The opening sequence explodes with the excitement, quick laughs, shameless coquetry, and cheesy action that defines a good espionage flick. But once this electrifying sequence ends, these shiny attributes vanish along with it, leaving us whisked away to a decidedly insipid reality. Our hopes, raised high, are summarily dashed as we return to the bland, normal world of Elly Conway. It’s clear that plot constraints necessitate the removal of the initially introduced characters, yet considering their immediate magnetism and charisma compared to Elly, this should have been a red flag for Vaughn. After all, the most compelling films focus on their most interesting characters, and Elly simply isn’t that.
The lack of chemistry between Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard certainly doesn’t help, though the blame could just as easily lie with the humdrum writing. The plotline involving the pair falling madly in love with each other was maddeningly predictable and, perhaps most unforgivably, totally derivative: there was nothing about their budding romance that has not been done before, often in better films. Knight and Day (2010) even features a practically identical meet-cute: spy meets young woman on a plane and must fight off hordes of baddies who seemingly booked the entire flight. Apart from the transportation, the scenes are indistinguishable. In my opinion, the story would’ve been more successful as a buddy-spy film, entirely eliminating the obligatory and underwhelming love plot.
Taking cues from other Tom Cruise’s spy thrillers, Vaughn and Fuchs appear to have recently binged the entire Mission: Impossible franchise. Vaughn’s visual inspiration seems to stem from set pieces in Dead Reckoning (2023), both featuring extended train fights culminating in dramatic parachute escapes. The plot, however, bears more resemblance to Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015), particularly the narrative thread involving a network of covert operatives orchestrating global terrorism. While Vaughn’s Division replaces Christopher McQuarrie’s Syndicate, it fails to achieve either the sincere threat or comical theatricality expected from an action comedy.
The film exhibits other questionable similarities, both in its plot and visual style, to other spy films I won’t go into detail about. But it’s undeniable that the narrative borrows heavily from films like The Bourne Identity (2002), Casino Royale (2006), and even Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E (2015), which also starred Henry Cavill. And not just on the poster, but if you can believe it, in the film as well. Perhaps Guy should give his old friend Matthew some tips…
Fuchs attempts to capture the same “Gotcha!” moments that made the Mission: Impossible franchise iconic and gleefully exaggerated, but can’t pull them off convincingly. The film throws several twists at the audience, trying to be shocking, but they lack impact. If you were to believe them, which is unlikely, these scenes would fundamentally change the direction of the plot. However, rather than being fun surprises, they come across as transparent attempts to inject excitement into a rather trite script.
As the film progresses, the plot twists become increasingly numerous, raising the question: what purpose do they serve? By the end, several reveals fall flat, devoid of the intended emotional impact. While Vaughn clearly aims to stir the viewer’s emotions, these moments lack the necessary foundation to have the desired effect.
As a result of these weaknesses, the performances suffer. It’s not just an “off showing” from the actors; Bryan Cranston, known for his portrayal of chilling menace in Breaking Bad (2008-2013), is totally unconvincing. He seems drastically limited by his monotonous, generic villain, resulting in an unusually lacklustre performance. It’s a missed opportunity not to allow him to inject some humour or quirkiness into the supervillain Ritter. Instead, the character lacks personality and spends most of the film screaming.
Cranston’s incessant shouting almost becomes preferable to the omnipresent background music that infects every scene. This music oscillates between the rather tedious blockbuster theme—so ubiquitous in big-budget productions that it’s probably available as an app at this point—and dance fight scores, and it often feels sloppily chosen. Honestly, I doubt Vaughn will ever surpass his gory Kingsman massacre set to the tune of “Give it Up.” Genocide and KC and the Sunshine Band? Truly a winning combination.
While the film offers moments of entertainment, it fails to present a fresh take on the spy genre. Ultimately, it delivers a derivative story with characters lacking the memorability and intrigue of many other on-screen spies, even within the same film. You don’t get spies wearing turtlenecks or drinking martinis. It’ll probably make you laugh once or twice and it’s decent Friday night schlock. But it’s not a good film. Onto the sequel, I suppose.
UK • USA | 2024 | 139 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Matthew Vaughn.
writer: Jason Fuchs.
starring: Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Catherine O’Hara, Dua Lipa, Ariana DeBose, John Cena & Samuel L. Jackson.