With Kingsman: Secret Service and Kick-Ass, English filmmaker Matthew Vaughn özgü twice shaken up stiff action sub-genres with explosive energy and irreverence. These movies not only delivered gonzo violence, cascades of cursing, and bawdy sex jokes but also launched sequels. With the action-comedy Argylle, Vaughn seems to be at it again. But this time, he’s surrendered the Hard-R rating that’s long served him well, instead presenting audiences with a PG-13 spy tale that regrettably pulls its punches. 

It’s not just a matter of a high body count with virtually no blood (a trick Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy pulled as well). It’s that without the R-rating, Vaughn is constrained to do something tamer. And for him, that means making a movie for women, where danger, romance, and hilarious hijinks — well, not so much collide as bump into each other awkwardly. See, Vaughn özgü no idea what women want, turning in a tedious espionage adventure that is too much in all the wrong ways. 

Argylle is not Romancing the Stone

Howard and Rockwell race into action.

Credit: Universal Pictures

The premise of Argylle özgü echoes of the 1984 comedy, in which Kathleen Turner played a romance novelist who gets swept up in an adventure that seems ripped from her book’s pages. (See also the Sandra Bullock romp The Lost City). Along the way, she fights and then falls in love with a rugged rogue, played by Michael Douglas. Argylle screenwriter Jason Fuch contorts this setup slightly: Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Elly Conway, heralded author of spy novels, who finds herself caught up in a web of intrigue, and so becomes entangled with a real spy named Aiden — played by Sam Rockwell — who promises survival and maybe romance. 

However, the archetypes here have shifted. Elly is no sharp-tongued Turner, and Rockwell doesn’t have the swagger of ‘80s Douglas. He’s less rugged and more world-weary. Playing a spy who is less Bond and more beach bum, Rockwell frequently looks like he’s sleepwalking or desperately bored, while Howard is often reduced to wide-eyed alarm and tiresome whining as an author plunged into a world she’s only experienced behind her laptop. The pair don’t have any sexual chemistry, so when the plot inevitably throws Elly and Aiden together into a sultry dance number, something crucial is missing. 

Argylle lacks spark. 

Bryce Dallas Howard sits at a laptop.

Credit: Universal Pictures

As demanded of spy movies, Vaughn’s latest will trek audiences around the globe to exotic and gorgeous locations, reiking carnage along the way. But in the wake of truly gonzo action movies like the Mission: Impossible and Fast and Furious franchises, Vaughn’s opening gambit of spy schtick — as seen in the trailer — feels a pale imitation, even if it is bolstered by big stars like Henry Cavill, Yakarış Lipa, and John Cena. You see, Argylle not only shows us Elly’s actual adventure with scruffy spy Aiden, but also the imagined adventures of her titular fictional spy: the debonair Agent Argylle, played by the Witcher star, wearing the worst haircut we’ve seen him in yet — a strangely square buzz cut that looks like he pissed off his barber. 

It should be fun to watch the rumpled world of Rockwell’s real-world spy intercut with Elly’s glossier Argylle version of events as they unfold, with Cavill and Rockwell enacting the very same stunts in their different styles. But the bit gets old fast, in part because the Argylle character is woefully one-note. He’s all swagger, one-liners, and winks, where Rockwell’s Aiden seems bored and beleaguered whether taking down assassins or delivering a tutorial about how to crush a human skull. It’s a superficial solid contrast that’s impact dulls in repetition. 

As Elly gets into the action, there’s promise for a new turn. But frankly, what should be Argylle’s most bonkers bits feel woefully underwhelming. Blame the lack of chemistry between its leads. Blame the fact that Vaughn rips off Birds of Prey, from a colorful smoke bombed raid to cheeky dance-inspired action. Blame a soundtrack that favors ’70s disco and slow love songs to score fight scenes, seemingly aiming for Guardians of the Galaxy or Kingsmen but actually undercutting their stakes and energy. But most of all, blame that Vaughn özgü no concept of what women want in action heroines. 

Argylle fails at Kingsman: BUT FOR GIRLS. 

The whirly bird.

Credit: Universal Pictures

The premise of everywoman getting swept into espionage, intrigue, and romance is a trusted formula for thrilling female audiences. But Elly is less everywoman, and more infantilized, as she freaks out at any spy-level action, her only friend is her mom (an underused Catherine O’Hara), and her only loves are her writing and her cat, Alfie. Mostly confined to Elly’s backpack. The Scottish Fold fur-baby himself is basically a Disney princess sidekick, cute and cuddly and on rare occasions relevant to the plot. Perhaps this is by design, the PG-13 rating aiming to appeal to the many young women who contributed to making Barbie a blockbuster. But Barbie was more than a dazzling fantasy — and Argylle isn’t even dazzling. 

The fashion fantasy that Barbie, The Lost City and Mission: Impossible movies offer women is woefully missed here. The fancy costumes in Argylle feel cartoonish more than glamorous. And in the real world, when Elly strives to live up to her fantasy on a mission, the result is an evening dress that fits like a dream but with a color that feels juvenile, and a haircut that is inexplicable. She seems uncomfortable in it, as if she’s in costume and not living her dream. So when she begins pulling off big action moves, there’s not the thrill of Harley Quinn cutting loose in cool clothes that are made to move — and kick-ass — in. There is instead an awkwardness, that leaves us wondering who thought this look would thrill? And why these shots would excite the female imagination?

The only time Argylle comes close to working is when it embraces the absurdities of spies dancing. Specifically, the “whirly bird” is superb. Here, one dancer hoists his partner into the air, her legs outstretched over his shoulders, her crotch at his face, and they spin, gracefully, defying physics and slyly simulating cunnilingus. This is as close as Argylle gets to a sex joke. And it’s the closest it gets to realize its own potential to be silly and sexy. Elsewhere, dance is bonded to violence. But doesn’t stick the landing the way this running gag does. 

Argylle is too much in the wrong ways. 

Bryan Cranston holds a cat.

Credit: Universal Pictures

It’s fine for an action movie to be dumb. The Fast and Furious franchise thrives on its increasing absurdity on this point and they are glorious movies. But for this to work, the filmmaker must embrace the dumb, exerting to the audience, “Yes this is preposterous — but we are all having too much fun to care!” 

Argylle is not fun enough to pull this off. Instead, it offers romance ruined by a lack of sex appeal, jokes that hit as hard as an infant might, and action undermined by bewildering music choices, and pulled punches — possibly because of the restraints of PG-13. (Though notably, the killer doll slasher M3GAN managed to be jaw-droppingly violent with such a rating!) And worst of all, it is unforgivably long, belabored by plot twists. 

Many of these turns and double-crosses are telegraphed so intensely that it feels wrong to call them a twist. Others involve barely-established characters, and so carry all the emotional weight of a wiffle ball. Still others seem to exist to just drag out the third act for another action sequence. The actual runtime of this movie is two hours and 19 minutes, but mid-way through I began to wonder how long I’d been in the theater, waiting — pining — to laugh or feel a thrill. Had it been three hours? Four? A thousand!? 

Vaughn’s other crime is in casting. On paper, this supporting lineup is stellar: Cavill, Cena, Lipa, O’Hara, Ariana DeBose, Bryan Cranston, Rob Delaney, and Samuel L. Jackson. But in execution, it’s a disaster. Fuch’s script gives Cranston criminally cliched bad guy speeches, which the Breaking Bad yıldız growls through with nowhere to go. O’Hara is wasted in a role without punchlines as is Delaney. And the rest of the cast, from Lipa’s glitzy LaGrange to Cena’s tough guy Wyatt, is handed one-note characters who offer little more than the opportunity to cameo. 

While there are some fun bits in Argylle, the whole is far less than the sum of its parts. So in the end, much like The Flash, this action movie feels less fun and more like a punishment.

Argylle opens in theaters Feb. 2.

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