It’s a hard decision for Elly to make. She loves her cat Alfie, her companion not just on lonely nights when she writes the latest entry in her hit spy novel series but also her passenger on a trip across the world, courtesy of the backpack carrier she wears throughout the film. But as Aiden points out, another wave of bad guys are on their way. And while his superhuman skills saved the day once, he doesn’t believe he can protect her through another assault.
The viewers do not share Elly’s indecision. We want her to save the cat. So ingrained in audiences is the desire for feline safety that “Save the Cat” has become a catchphrase for anything a hero does to win the audience’s sympathy, owing to the influential screenwriting handbook Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.
Regardless of what Elly chooses, the fact that we all recognize the conundrum as a trope exemplifies the promise and problem with Argylle, the spy thriller/comedy from director Matthew Vaughn.
Throughout the first half of the movie, Vaughn gives us glimpses of the fictional world that Elly created. The adventures of Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) and his sidekick Wyatt (John Cena) draws directly from James Bond movies, from Argylle’s debonair demeanor to the seductive supervillain (Dua Lipa) he romances/fights. But although Bond does exist in this world — Ian Fleming is name checked in the movie, alongside other real spies turned authors — Argylle is a pop culture phenomenon, one that makes Elly Conway a household name.
Elly’s fans include a contingent of “real” spies, including Aiden. At the behest of a secret benefactor, Aiden comes to protect and recruit the reluctant Elly. So detailed are her plots that they have reflected real-world events. Aiden and his enemies, a terrorist organization operated by Bryan Cranston‘s Ritter, want to secure the final chapter of the latest Argylle novel, thereby gaining an intel advantage on the world stage.
Given that setup in the script by Jason Fuchs, Argylle‘s heavy use of spy tropes makes sense. There’s a long cinematic history of stories about genre writers and actors who get swept up in real-world versions of their own fictional creations, most notably Romancing the Stone. But where Romancing the Stone director Robert Zemeckis knew how to distinguish between the fictional world of author Joan Wilder’s (Kathleen Turner) books and the “real” adventure she goes on with smuggler Jack (Michael Douglas), Vaughn cannot resist his slick instincts.
In the first “real-world” action sequence, a long-haired, bearded Aiden fights off legions of spies to save Elly. Vaughn shoots the action through Elly’s point of view, using a blinking eye to switch between Aiden and Agent Argylle battling the baddies. In theory, the blinking eye trope has value, and it’s one that Vaughn employs throughout the film. But the execution fails because there’s not really much difference between Argylle and Aiden. Sure, the hulking, stylish Argylle flashes a wink while he fights, but Rockwell’s natural surfer demeanor seems just as relaxed, to say nothing of the fact that he pulls off ridiculous feats as well as the apparently fictional agent.
The film’s constant use of CGI and false backdrops only exacerbates the problem. It’s not just the fight scenes that use digital graphics to create and composite combatants; even mundane elements are clearly computer generated. Bryan Cranston is all sharp edges while standing in front of the fuzzy yellow lava lamp background of Ritter’s lair, a poor imitation of a Ken Adam lava hideout. The spymaster played by Samuel L. Jackson sits in a desk in a poorly rendered room that’s supposed to be filled with computer screens and sports memorabilia. Even scenes that would otherwise be shot on location, such as the hotel where Elly meets her doting mother (Catherine O’Hara, wonderful as always), look as real as a credit card commercial.
Again, all of these settings occur in the real world of the movie, not in the Argylle adventures imagined by Elly. As a result, the movie not only misses the humor and pathos that could come from the difference between the two worlds, but it makes all of the action and plotting feel familiar. We never truly worry if Elly will save the cat because the cat in question is a CG cartoon that looks even more fake than the Flerken from The Marvels.
In fairness, the Fuchs’s script does justify the movie’s use of tropes with a twist that occurs midway through the film. At that point, the film becomes noticeably better, as the relationship between Ellie and Aiden solidifies and steps out from the shadow of The African Queen and countless other movies about mismatched love interests bickering their way through an adventure. But while the reveal ups the intrigue, it immediately deflates the tension with exposition scene upon exposition scene, in which characters take turns explaining who they really are and what they really want, at least until the next set of twists.
The sympathetic viewer might forgive the exposition dumps as a reprieve that sets up the final act, which plays to Vaughn’s strengths. The last 40 mins of Argylle feature two action set pieces that rival the church scene in Kingsman or the beach battle in X-Men: First Class. Neither set piece features particularly convincing effects, but that only heightens the cartoon bombast when a passionate dance becomes a gun battle or when ice skating becomes as deadly as a Philadelphia Flyers game from the 1970s.
However, even a defender who delights in these two sequences (and forgives the film’s horrendously staged final battle, a duel that requires the viewer to suspend all incredulity to accept the fight’s pacing) has to wonder why Vaughn wasted a full hour of of the movie’s two-hour and twenty minute runtime before getting to the good stuff. In fact, Argylle plays less like a spy comedy and more like an echo of a better movie, one that leans into the comedy of an author out of her depth and lets Sam Rockwell use his goofy screen presence to its full potential.
Between Vaughn’s natural action chops and the chemistry of the stars, the movie will appease those looking for a lazy afternoon at the cinema. But an attentive viewer can’t help but want to see more of the inventive thriller sneaking around Argylle‘s background.
Argylle opens in theaters worldwide on Feb. 1.