With a couple exceptions, Matthew Vaughn is a director whose appeal largely eludes me. 20 years ago, his Guy Ritchie-aping Layer Cake was a sort of test run for Daniel Craig before his superb breakout as James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale. Vaughn’s films since then, from Kick-Ass to the Kingsman franchise, have always struck me as productions that try way too hard to push buttons and not hard enough to create a compelling story. His newest, the spy comedy Argylle, is his first PG-13 movie since X-Men: First Class, which presents a challenge to a storyteller who often leans on over-the-top gore and a slurry of salty language to punctuate his tales. If his latest feels neutered, it may not be because it feels like the R-rated content was cut out but rather that the entire movie was cut from the fabric of projects that pulled off this sort of caper more convincingly.

Argylle opens with the titular secret agent (Henry Cavill) on his latest mission in Greece, attempting to seduce a sultry asset named LaGrange (Dua Lipa), with members of his team Keira (Ariana DeBose) and Wyatt (John Cena) ready to provide backup. After a car chase that seems especially cartoonish, we realize we’re actually inside a story being created by Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), a successful author in the process of writing her fifth novel in the Argylle series. But while taking a train to visit her folks in Chicago, she’s intercepted by bonafide spy Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who claims her books are not only remunerative but seemingly prophetic. In fact, they’re so accurate to the real goings-on in international espionage that she’s being recruited to predict the next steps that will be taken by The Division, a nefarious organization that Aidan and his team aim to topple.

With its story-in-a-story structure and seemingly endless twists, Argylle feels like what screenwriter Shane Black would come up with if he were given 72 hours to do furious rewrites for 2022’s The Lost City. Instead of that Romancing The Stone riff, Vaughn goes the glossed-out route of recent globetrotting duds like Red Notice and Ghosted, with comparatively better, but still not very good, results. The cast, led terrifically by Howard as a charmingly flustered protagonist, certainly does their best to sell the material. Bryan Cranston and Samuel L. Jackson turn up as the heads of the rivaling spy organizations, while Catherine O’Hara is reliably excellent as Elly’s supportive mom. There’s no shortage of superlative talent on the screen but the nagging feeling persists that it would be better had all of these talented folks showed up for a project more deserving of their gifts.

It’s Vaughn and his writer Jason Fuchs who don’t bring their A-game to Argylle as their attempt to collision course several genres ends up in a multi-car pileup. As a send-up of the spy genre, it’s not particularly observant or witty in its rote execution of espionage pap. As an action movie, it falls back on the same chaotic formula of hastily-staged combat and cheeky disco tunes that Vaughn can’t seem to let go of. The comedy works in bits and pieces, thanks to the occasional inspired line read from members of the overqualified cast, but it’s not a consistently funny movie. There are moments that are meant to carry dramatic weight, one of which involves the overuse of a Beatles song that hadn’t even been released when this movie was presumably set, that don’t land because they feel like they’re from an entirely different film.

But worst of all, Argylle seems to be stuck in the same mid-aughts time loop that Vaughn finds himself in, where crime films like Lucky Number Slevin and Smokin’ Aces tried to outsmart audiences at every turn with one plot development more ludicrous than the last. To put it bluntly, there’s a reason those types of movies went away in the first place but Vaughn treats each of the reveals in his newest project like we’ve never seen this sort of thing before. It would also be palatable if it were breezily paced but at 139 minutes, the scenes of exposition and explanation don’t take long to bog things down. Argylle is being distributed by Apple Original Films, which means it will likely be on Apple TV+ later this year. With a flurry of familiar faces, it may play just fine on that streaming service but as a big screen affair, it isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Lisa Frankenstein, a horror comedy starring Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse about a misunderstood teenager who reanimates a corpse from the Victorian era during a lightning storm and starts to rebuild him into the man of her dreams.
Also coming to theaters is Out Of Darkness, a horror thriller starring Safia Oakley-Green and Chuku Modu following a disparate gang of early humans who band together in search of a new land and suspect a malevolent, mystical being is hunting them down.
Premiering on Hulu is Suncoast, a coming-of-age drama starring Laura Linney and Woody Harrelson about a teenager who, while caring for her ill brother, strikes up an unlikely friendship with an eccentric activist who is protesting one of the most landmark medical cases of all time.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup