It takes a very specific kind of brain trust to craft something as uniquely baffling as Argylle. If you’ve been to a multiplex in the last 7 or 8 months, you’ve likely borne witness to its obnoxious trailer. If you haven’t––bless you, sweet lamb. In most cases, a trailer should have absolutely no bearing on the quality of a film. Plenty of great films are marred by bad marketing; others propped-up by the opposite. In this instance, it’s a bit of the latter, but the thing unique to Argylle is that it feels reverse-engineered for a poppy trailer: with candy-coated visuals and enough familiar faces to pass as an attempt at a young, fresh spy blockbuster. Since the nagging, memable question of a “real Agent Argylle” has been forced upon our collective consciousness, it will no doubt usher some of the more morbidly curious into a theater, driven either ironically or earnestly. In essence, Argylle is a marketing hook in search of a movie.

What director Matthew Vaughn puts forth is cobbled from spare parts of better films. As author Joan Wilder Elly Conway, Kathleen Turner Bryce Dallas Howard gets swept up in a treasure hunt espionage straight out of one of her novels. Tom Cruise Sam Rockwell, a kooky cad of a spy named Roy Miller Aidan Wilde, escorts her on a globetrotting, fish-out-of-water caper with an obligatory evil clandestine agency not far behind. Thus, Knight and Day Argylle lumbers through one derivative green screen set piece at a time, with a feline from the uncanny valley in tow.

One might think the bare-minimum promise of a showstopping twist would at least warrant a pulse in the third-act proceedings. The aggravating truth is that, for all the jokey speculation, any Internet-brained, madcap suggestion at Agent Argylle’s true identity would be far more interesting than what plays out on screen. Blatant spoilers aside: not only is the promised bombshell readily apparent, but it’s prompted as a possibility early on and only given more credence as plot basics unfold. It’s not a rug-pull or a curveball, and the only thing to urge a second guess is a trailer that promised a bigger surprise. It’s as if studio PR machinery knew the stale corpse they had on hand and their emergency chute was to dress a basic logline up as a gotcha. Apparently the only thing twisted about the mind of Matthew Vaughn is that it’s devoid of imagination. You could deem Argylle a blow for “original” films at the studio level, but it strains definition of the word to its breaking point. If originality simply denotes being sequel or IP-free, then we should require that films be good first.

If there is any upside to be found, it may be in the general affability of this cast, all of whom at least muster a bit of charm (no doubt from the hefty portion of the film’s $200 million budget they’ve received). Howard and Rockwell conjure some laughs, and Catherine O’Hara gets to chew some scenery, but that fuel is guzzled before the first hour is through. What remains is exhausting: one of the uglier blockbusters in recent memory, and the lack of anything tactile renders all the action danger-free. If one is to believe that cinema can spark change or have some measure of social responsibility, then the massive resources toward something so vacant feels morally reprehensible.

Less a film than it is a tax haven, it’s easy (and perhaps correct) to jibe that Argylle, with all of its famous people and whiz-bang CG, could be generated by AI. But that notion lets too many culprits off the hook. The truly chilling thought is not that Argylle was made by a robot––it’s that it was the best thing real flesh-and-blood humans with $200 million could conjure.

Argylle is now in theaters.

Grade: D

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