The bloated Argylle forgets a good actioner should leave us breathless, not exhausted

Matthew Vaughn is back with would-be action franchise starter Argylle. All the ingredients for a fun time are here, but it’s far too long and convoluted for its own good, writes Travis Johnson.

Inside director Matthew Vaughn’s Argylle there’s a fun, brisk romantic action comedy screaming to get out. You might have to listen carefully, though; there’s a lot of bloat in the way.

Some of that is down to the bête noire of modern filmmaking, which is franchise-first thinking—Argylle is supposed to set up a sprawling espionage shared universe that encompasses itself, Vaughn’s Kingsman series, and a third, secret thing. But in trying to tip the first domino in the line, Vaughn and screenwriter Jason Fuchs (Pan) succumb to self-indulgence. Argylle has moments, scenes, little bits of business that really pop, but they’re mired in a plodding script that often comes across as smug rather than sly. All other considerations aside, the 139-minute running time is a big ask—some emergency surgery to get this thing down to a tight 100 would work wonders.

Which is a shame, because all the ingredients for a fun time are here. A riff on Romancing the Stone, which already serviced as inspo for the recent The Lost City, Argylle sees a dowdied-down Bryce Dallas Howard as Elly Conway, spy thriller novelist and doting fur-mama to her cat, Alfie. Her hit series follows the exploits of superspy Argylle (Henry Cavill and, making a welcome return to the screen, Schwarzenegger’s haircut from Commando), essentially a James Bond dropped into a Mission: Impossible story. In real life, however, she’s anxious, lonely, and under the thumb of her cheerfully domineering mother (Catherine O’Hara, who can do this stock role in her sleep).

Things change, however, when she encounters a real spy, Sam Rockwell’s Aiden, on an interstate train trip, and he’s nowhere near as suave as ol’ Argylle. He’s a dab hand at fighting off the wave of assassins that show up, though, and so Elly is now on a jet-setting jaunt with the affable Aiden, with Alfie along for the ride. Why her? Good question. Shame about the answer.

Far too convoluted for its own good, Argylle lurches from set piece to set piece, and while the action is generally very good and the chemistry between our two leads is palpable, it’s hard to really care about what’s going on. The M:I films have taught us that plot can be largely irrelevant, but stakes still matter—Ethan Hunt is out to save the world. Argylle is low stakes but lacks the dexterity to still be engaging. You can see Rockwell struggling to elevate the material he’s been given to work with, while Howard is stuck with a deer-in-the-headlights expression for most of her screen time, until later developments (which we won’t spoil) see her thrust directly into the action. There’s a lot going on in Argylle, but perhaps too much. A good actioner should leave us breathless, not exhausted.

There’s fun to be had, sure. The supporting cast, including Bryan Cranston as Elly’s dad, and John Cena, Dua Lipa, and Richard E. Grant as various characters in the fictional Argylle universe, plus Samuel L. Jackson and Sofia Boutella briefly cropping up in the “real” world, are pretty great but sparsely used. There’s a scattering of genuinely surprising and impressive action gags—Vaughn loves and respects action choreography, and that’s readily apparent here.

But at the end of the day, Argylle feels like an overly long example of the sort of big budget but instantly forgettable action fodder that Netflix cranks out on the reg, and not the foundation of a new and exciting cinematic universe. It barely functions as a stand-alone movie. It should be noted that this is an Apple TV+ production, and your best course of action might be to check it out when it eventually drops there.