Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"Argylle isn't a delicate or even restrained construction, thread-bare and candy-coloured to the point that if it were underwear it'd be both crotchless and edible."

Chekhov had that line about a gun on the mantlepiece, but Argylle doesn't want you to wait. The perforated heat shield pretty clearly identifies it as some variant of the Remington Model 1897 but it's named by a carving on the handle. And, oh my darling, "Clementine" is hardly the most obvious thing Argylle has to offer. It'd be great if it was a harbinger of narrative significance, but a diet of Easter eggs is the dream of children.

An action-comedy, and perhaps more of one than the other, it's from the same stable as Kingsman and the like. Even if you didn't have references in canned drinks or beer pumps the tone and large elements of the cast would be clue enough. Someone will already have figured out what basketball game we see Samuel L Jackson watching, only to have that interrupted by scenes where we're watching him watching a file download. It was barely acceptable to those waiting to complete a torrent of something good back in the cross-over between file-sharing and dial-up and it's even less so in our unhyphenated broadband streaming future.

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I have consumed enough fiction that I can suspend disbelief more readily than a credulous garter belt, but just as good lingerie conceals to reveal, a good spy film should keep some of the shape of its secrets hidden. Argylle isn't a delicate or even restrained construction, thread-bare and candy-coloured to the point that if it were underwear it'd be both crotchless and edible.

Produced in part by Apple studios, it has prominent product placement including several iPhones, Macbooks, Airpods, references to Steve Jobs, and latterly and possibly with comedic intent somebody using an iPad with each hand. Sadly they're not playing a Nokia game and they're not perfectly aligned, else we could have had Snake on a plane. Similarly foregrounded, an exotic list of locales: Greece, Hong Kong, the "Arabian Peninsula", "France", and latterly Fort Morgan, Colorado.

I'll give it props for placing some of its action in a transport corridor actually served by Amtrak. Much like Bullet Train, its locomotive setpiece is of a level of wit that would consider pantograph a diagram of that earlier paragraph's unmentionables, but sometimes all you want is to see someone get their head smacked into the luggage rack. Goodness knows anyone who's caught an Edinburgh train during the festival can empathise. That festival experience gives rise to one of the film's least believable features, not one but two author Q&As where none of the questions are more of a comment.

That's actually slightly unfair, there's something that comes close near one of the endings. A scene in the credits serves as a moment that might be setting up a further extension of the franchise that is both within and without its interlocking fictions. That might actually be the most interesting part of it, but it's scarcely worth the rest.

Of course here I should say that I'm far from this film's target audience. I mean, yes, I'm a man in my forties with some measure of disposable income and therefore a key battleground demographic for films that feature explosions (Oppenheimer, Rambo) or spies (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Spy) or novelists (Martin Eden, Misery). However I suspect that one of the reasons that it is a 12A is to ensure you've not seen any of the things it's stealing from. Don't get me wrong, I appreciated the nods to Three Days Of The Condor, The Long Kiss Goodnight, even Fight Club, but my fondness for those did not reflect well upon Argylle. As a pattern it is born of repetition but these diamonds are not precious, nor are these lozenges easy to swallow.

The cast verges on ludicrous, but the variety of locations gives them plenty of scenery upon which to chew. Bryce Dallas Howard's mousy novelist, her fictional hero played by Henry Cavill, his sidekick (John Cena), his nemesis (Dua Lipa), his duplicitous employer (Richard E Grant). Intersecting with those Sam Rockwell (who dances), Bryan Cranston (who doesn't), and Samuel L Jackson who, as mentioned previously, watches basketball and a file download.

An important file that could bring down an organisation is kept on a USB key, and that bit of file storage is in the shape of a silver bullet. If that seems like a clever bit of wordplay then I have got a chocolate-covered ball-shaped bubbly-biscuit bird to sell you, but other parties are interested in the Malteser falcon. Similarly other parties are interested in Howard's "Ellie Conway", whose books are a lot like real life. That's "real life" in the world of movies, admittedly. Movies like The Transporter, or Escape Plan, or Rogue One, or Kick-Ass, or Wanted, or Equilibrium, all of whom have elements that are repurposed here. I could go back further to works like Telefon but I suspect that Argylle isn't copying them directly but finding old threads in the hand-me-downs it is picking through.

There's a couple in the film whose 'song' is apparently The Beatles' Now & Then, which would be sweet enough to cover an appearance and a reprise and an orchestral version if its chronology made any sense. Released in 2023, it didn't exist as an entity until then, remastered "with AI" as the press-release has it. There'd been an attempt to construct in in the 1990s but it came to naught. That's all to say that one of the film's emotional centres is something reconstructed and false, salvaged by technology from an unexplored past, an exercise less in art than copyright extension. I'd love to say I thought it sophistication, but the recycling is less Adaptation than autocannibalisation.

Written by Jason Fuchs, who contributed to Wonder Woman and 2015's Pan, as well as Ice Age: Continental Drift, it might be unkind to suggest that another collaborator could have helped shape this. Directed by Matthew Vaughn it doesn't stray that far from a pattern he established in the three Kingsman films. References within suggest it might even take place somewhere adjacent, maybe even close enough that it'd be worth knocking on the door and asking for that cup of plot back. If a fan of Vaughn's earlier work then this will probably suffice, but it suffers in comparison to everything it borrows from.

Reviewed on: 22 Feb 2024
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Argylle packshot
A reclusive author who writes espionage novels about a secret agent and a global spy syndicate realises that the plot of the new book she's writing is starting to mirror real world events, in real time.
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Director: Matthew Vaughn

Writer: Jason Fuchs

Starring: Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Daniel Singh, Dua Lipa, Richard E Grant, Jon Cena, Ariana DeBose

Year: 2024

Runtime: 139 minutes

Country: UK, US


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