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This cat is as well-developed a character as any in the spy comedy Argylle. Courtesy Universal Pictures and Apple Original Films

A certain subsection of Taylor Swift fans spent this past January advancing the theory that she had written the script for Argylle. There’s some reason to think this — Apple Films drummed up publicity for the movie this past fall by publishing a real novel under the name of its main character, Elly Conway, and created some fake social media profiles for her. When the trailer went public, fans noted the resemblance between the short red hairdo on Elly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the wig that Swift wore in her “All Too Well” video. Swift does have a (pretty funny) history of working under pseudonyms, and she resembles Elly in being a devoted cat owner.

All this was enough for some people, but I never believed it, just as I never believed the NFL rigged the Super Bowl for Swift, or that she was secretly gay, or that Paul McCartney has been dead for 50 years, or that Stevie Wonder has been able to see this whole time. If I do find out that I’m wrong and she wrote this, I’ll be very disappointed, because this comic spy thriller is tedious and a lot less clever than it thinks it is.

Elly lives quietly with her cat in a cabin in Colorado where she writes a successful series of spy novels about the dashing Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill), who repeatedly saves the world from mad scientists and nefarious billionaires. While she’s traveling by train to visit her mother (Catherine O’Hara), a stranger named Aiden Wilde (Sam Rockwell) comes up to her dressed like a homeless man, identifies himself as a spy, and proves it by killing an autograph seeker along with a bunch of other armed people on the train who are evidently after her. The first sign that all isn’t as it seems is during the fight, when Elly keeps hallucinating Argylle doing the fighting instead of Aidan.

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The film starts promisingly enough, with Aidan pulling a terrified Elly through the streets of London to a villa in the south of France while she demands to know why they’re being shot at. The problem is that director Matthew Vaughn and actual screenwriter Jason Fuchs — he also portrays the moderator at one of Elly’s book signings — are too much in love with their plot revelations. Elly’s entire life turns out to be a lie, a plot devised by the former CIA director (Bryan Cranston) who’s employing one or more of her allies and may be a pawn himself. Argylle also continues to appear to Elly to give her advice on how to get out of her jam. A spy named Keira (Ariana DeBose) is a character in Elly’s novels but then turns up in her real life as well. Then comes the point when Aidan, without warning, throws a punch at Elly’s face, and she’s more surprised than anyone when she sidesteps the blow and judo-flips him over her shoulder.

Some fans are touting this as a new meta way of telling a story, yet I kept feeling touches derivative of better spy movies before this. Vaughn has shown the abilities to be darkly funny and orchestrate an action sequence, but here the mix is entirely off. The comedy intrudes when the movie needs gravity, and the movie takes itself too seriously when it needs to be funny. The climax just piles set piece on top of set piece, and while some of them might have had an impact in a more judicious movie, they add up to too much of the same thing here. The supporting cast is stacked — John Cena as Argylle’s tech guy, Dua Lipa as a femme fatale, Samuel L. Jackson and Sofia Boutella as people who know Argylle’s real identity — but the movie makes poor use of all this star power. Even the great Rockwell is off his game, which is how you know it’s all gone very wrong. On paper, this film probably looked like a blast of thrills and meta comedy, but on the screen, it fails comprehensively on every score.

 

Argylle
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Jason Fuchs. Rated PG-13.

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