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Movie Review: 'Argylle' won't blow your socks off

A checkered mesh of mysteries have accompanied the release of Matthew Vaughn’s “Argylle.” There is the promoted one: Who is the “real” Agent Argylle? Then there’s all the (baseless) conjecture over whether argyle aficionado Taylor Swift had anything to do with the film. But most of all: Why two L’s? While we can finally put to rest the first two puzzles, we’re left to posit that the spelling must be to differentiate the movie for those who just want to buy a pair of socks.

The socks would be a wiser investment. “Argylle,” a $200 million production from Apple Films opening in theaters Thursday, is a big bet to kickstart a new spy series, presumably with iterations to follow such as “Plaidd” and “Herringbonne.”

Criss-crossing patterns of ridiculousness and self-satisfaction run through “Argylle,” a tiresome meta movie that puts an awful lot of zest into an awfully empty high-concept story.

There are all kinds of dumb movies. It can even be a good quality. “Step Brothers,” for instance, is a brilliantly dumb movie. “Argylle” knows it’s preposterous and it’s trying to have fun with that. But it’s a strained, unimaginative effort, over-reliant on twists and needle drops, that leaves “Argylle” on the bad side of dumb. The best that you can say about “Argylle” is that it comes by its dumbness genuinely.

Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Elly Conway, a bestselling spy novelist who lives quietly with her (CGI enhanced) cat, Alfie, while conjuring globe-trotting adventures for her agent Argylle. The movie’s clunky prologue plunges us into his world, as Argylle (Henry Cavill) dances with and then pursues a slinky target (Dua Lipa, whose few minutes in the film may be its best).

While Elly mulls a new ending for her fifth book, she’s thrown into a real-world espionage thriller. While on the train, an actual, more scruffy-looking spy, Adrian (Sam Rockwell), approaches her just as mean-looking guys are closing in. Throughout the encounter, Elly blinks and sees Argylle in the place of Adrian, a bit of fiction-vs-reality that will play throughout “Argylle” in mostly uninteresting ways.

It’s a premise familiar from better movies like “Romancing the Stone” or “The Lost City.” But while those films filled their adventures with comedy, “Argylle” is surprisingly unfunny, a lacking Jason Fuchs’ script tries to make up for with one switcheroo after another. Eventually, the whole movie feels like a joke, even if contains few of them.

The actors nearly keep the movie’s absurd plate-spinning going. Among them are Bryan Cranston as the head of a shadowy organization called the Division, and Catherine O’Hara as Elly’s mother. But roles are fluid in “Argylle.” It’s a testament to Howard’s charm that “Argylle” is watchable, at all, and Rockwell, too, elevates the material.

Vaughn’s knack for combining a smirky sense of humor with flashy, slo-mo ultra-violence has previously won him fans in the “Kingsman” film series. He delights in running spy tropes through an irreverent wringer. (If “Kingsman” was a 007 riff, “Argylle” cribs from “Bourne.”) His movies, while often colorful and spirited, are slyly nasty with a slightly obnoxious juvenile underpinning of “can you believe I’m really doing this in a studio movie?”

With enough plot twists to make a daytime soap blush, “Argylle” shows just how little that can add up to. You might think: spy movie, fun actors, pleasing diagonal lines — how bad can it be? As much as we all could use a fun movie for fun's sake, you, too, may have your concerns about the limits of such pointlessness around the time when Bryce Dallas Howard glides across an oil spill on skates of knives. Plus, no movie genuinely interested in a good time would dare not give Catherine O'Hara room to be funny. All she needs is an inch.

In the end, the mysteries that surrounded “Argylle” ahead of its release were far more intriguing than those that play out during its lengthy runtime. Those questions go more like: Are they really repeatedly using the Apple Music tie-in Beatles song “Now and Then”? And: This film can’t be 139-minutes long, can it?

If there’s one person who seems to have the right idea in “Argylle,” it’s, as usual, Samuel L. Jackson. He has some vague role that requires him to await an important transmission from Adrian. But this effectively means he spends much of the movie far from the action, drinking red wine and watching the Lakers game. Smart guy.

“Argylle,” a Universal Studios/Apple Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for strong violence and action and some strong language. Running time: 139 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP