Agent Argylle — clad as always in his tightly tailored velour suit, “smell the fart” grimace and vaguely insane Me, Myself & Irene-inspired flat top — is going through a typical workday.
He’s basking in the sun of a foreign locale, ducking bullets in a fierce gun battle and — in an uncanny replication of Mission Impossible’s Spanish Steps car chase — grinding a yellow SUV, sideways, down a concrete railing.
Except no, he’s not, because Agent Argylle is not real. He’s the main character of Elly Conway’s newest novel, the very real book named for him that you can find on shelves now — bearing a “note for the new edition” despite first appearing just weeks ago, and an almost laughably cryptic, shadow-cloaked author photo.
But no, that’s not right. Because in the new movie Argylle, he is actually a very real espionage agent. Here, the writer Conway (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) has — completely by accident — exactly written up his exploits in a metanarrative book series that is just about to stretch to its fifth entry.
Wait, that’s not it. Because he’s not a book character, or a figment of Conway’s imagination, he’s…
The dust jacket bio of Argylle’s mysterious author, Elly Conway, shows a woman cloaked in shadow. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)Unfortunately, I have to stop there. Because while all those layers do come together to make up the confusing, self-referential plot of action/adventure/rom-com/spy-thriller/mystery movie Argylle, it is also as stuffed with twists as it is genre labels and underutilized guest stars.
Wasted stars, convoluted plot Where it starts, though, is in that messy mix of origins. The conceit is that writer Elly Conway has just finished the manuscript of her fifth book in the Argylle series — in her imagination, starring Henry Cavill as the international super-spy, John Cena as the body-building Benji Dunn-esque sidekick and Ariana DeBose as an afterthought tritagonist, who somehow manages to get even less screen time than the other two.
In fact, about half of the famous faces on Argylle’s poster (most notably DeBose, Cena, Samuel L. Jackson and Dua Lipa) seem to share the same two minutes of run time hastily crammed in to supercharge the marquee.
Back in the main story, after boarding a train to brainstorm a better final chapter with her mother (campily and wonderfully played by Catherine O’Hara), Conway is sidetracked. Then Aidan Wilde, a spy played Sam Rockwell, quickly, and quite literally, scoops her off her feet, looking worse for the wear than at his most ungroomed points in Moon,
WATCH | Argylle trailer:
Dodging what feels like the entire cast of Bullet Train now attacking them both, he explains to Conway that because of how accurately her book described an ongoing government conspiracy, the (very real) agencies she wrote about are now out to kill her.
Conway’s only way out is to follow him on an adventure that includes a trip to London, a computer hacker, and (in yet another aping of Mission Impossible) a digital drive full of covert information, that is vitally important to everyone involved for… reasons?
It’s all a bit hard to keep track of. And that’s just around the first 20 minutes of what is, improbably, a nearly 140 minute-long runtime — scarily close to Killers of the Flower Moon territory, and far too long for a movie whose cartoon physics allow grenades to blow you harmlessly across the room, Wile E. Coyote-style.
What comes next is virtually impossible to mention without littering this review with spoilers, as Argylle carefully plans its narrative like a Russian nesting doll hiding twists and reveals.
Suffice to say, you can look forward to Bryan Cranston doing his best impression of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Dee “being arch,” and the plot itself to almost spookily echo an episode of another popular spy cartoon (it will make more sense after you watch).
Based on a book?The movie’s ultimate quality really boils down to how far you’re willing to be led down the garden path as, even more than its plot, Argylle’s marketing-inspired existence is a matryoshka.
The real-life novel bears an (unremovable) sticker loudly affirming it is “the book that inspired the major motion picture,” the only similarity they share is Argylle’s name on the inside, and Conway’s on the cover.
Because while Argylle the movie concerns itself with Conway tracking down a mystery only parallelled by her writing, Argylle the book tracks the spy hero “deep in the treacherous jungle of Shan state on the wrong side of the Myanmar border … tracking the hostage group while holding the transponder tucked under his arm.”
Bryce Dallas Howard appears as the mysterious Conway in Argylle. In the movie, Conway becomes the subject of an international chase when her novels reflect a real-life conspiracy. (Apple TV+)The book’s straight spy-story is in no way connected to the movie, has zero elements of meta-author insertion (except for a few obvious movie tie-ins hidden in the foreword, acknowledgement and dust flaps) and only came out a few weeks ago.
Director Matthew Vaughn’s explanation for this is simple: Argylle (movie) is not based on Argylle (book). Instead, Argylle (movie) is based on Argylle 4 (book), which allows Argylle (movie) to set up Argylle 1 and 2 (movies) based on Argylle 1 and 2 (books). Those books, meanwhile, were of course all written by Conway before the movie was made, before any of them were published and before Conway gave a single interview or made a single public appearance with anyone, anywhere, at any time, ever.
That tap-dancing answer led to the obvious conclusion that Conway is not real, but a pseudonym for anyone from J.K. Rowling to Taylor Swift. A less salacious, but likely more accurate, theory put forward by Washington Post writer Sophia Nguyen is that author “Elly Conway” is really Britain’s Tammy Cohen. And as Vox’s Constance Grady theorized, all the smoke and mirrors is a clever marketing ploy to both give people something to talk about, and to offer the intoxicating whiff of IP adaptation.
And as I theorized just now, Argylle is the most bizarre — and least faithful — novelization to release ahead of its sister movie since George Gipe’s book Back To The Future. The only difference is that those producers never hid Gipe’s identity, and (hopefully) the real Elly Conway has not been killed by bees.
Like a movie made by a focus groupAs it stands, Argylle (movie) echoes its advertising-first origins: While it superficially walks in the footsteps of Austin Power’s spoofy satire, there is no unifying creative vision or visible passion behind it. Other than Rockwell, every character’s writing and delivery is painfully shallow — and it becomes especially egregious with Howard.
Shows like Cabin in the Woods, Over the Garden Wall and Schmigadoon! all follow a similar playbook to lovingly mock their respective genres’ simplicity, but they at least give the “real” characters depth.
Samuel L. Jackson appears as one of the film’s many (often underutilized) supporting characters. (Apple TV+)In Argylle, Conway is played just as straight, and just as clichéd, as the rest of her characters. So instead of coming across as a genre love-letter, the movie reeks of a kind of focus-grouped, soulless Frankenstein-product strategy. It’s the sort of flick that, of all the possible choices, would of course pick the AI Beatles song for its climactic emotional moment.
Even still, there’s an argument to be made for it as a don’t-think-too-much date night movie. But if you wanted that, you could opt for the far superior Stranger Than Fiction, or even the upcoming Hit Man, which both do what Argylle tried to do much better, and with a much shorter runtime.
But if you’re just looking for some simple fun — and don’t mind the sort of crowd that thinks it’s fine taking their phone out in the theatre — Argylle might be a safe bet.