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Movie Review" “Argylle”

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As much as I enjoyed the fun, exciting trailers for “Argylle” that made excellent use of the film’s eclectic cast, there was one element that told me the movie was in serious trouble. Amongst shots of the cat belonging to spy novelist Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), onscreen text insisted that, “Once you know the secret, don’t let the cat out of the bag.” In other words, there’s a big twist in this movie.

It’s not worrying that this spy movie has a big twist, given the genre it would be weird if it didn’t. It’s worrying that the movie needs to advertise itself like that, putting so much emphasis on the twist that it can’t possibly live up to the hype. Aside from the fact that announcing the twist ahead of time kills the element of surprise, the film is also basically saying that what you see in early stages is untrustworthy, since the twist is going to turn everything on its head eventually. Sure enough, the twist is laughable and killed the investment I had in the movie up to that point. I won’t go into spoilers, but nothing made me regret my questioning of the advertising tactics.

Elly Conway writes spy novels about Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill). Other characters include his sidekick (John Cena), his techie (Ariana DeBose), and his nemesis (Dua Lipa). The trailers made no secret that these characters are all fictional(ish), but they did exaggerate how much the four actors are in the movie.

Elly soon finds out, via real spy Aiden (Sam Rockwell), that what she has written corresponds to actual events in the world of international espianoge. She has written about things that have actually happened, and may be able to write about things that are going to happen. Some powerful people want to know what Elly’s going to write next, including Aiden’s boss (Samuel L. Jackson) and evil agency-runner Ritter (Bryan Cranston). Even Elly’s mother (Catherine O’Hara) is dying to know, but that’s probably just gentle motherly goading, or is it? Either way, this is a lousy time for Elly to develop a sudden case of writer’s block.

The confusing nature of the movie’s reality makes for a confused tone, which makes for confused actors and confused performances. Cranston, in particular, doesn’t seem to know when to play things straight or over the top, so he settles for an off-putting middle ground. Howard, to her credit, is giving a proper blockbuster performance, it’s just a shame this movie is doing so poorly that it will never achieve blockbuster status.

I liked some of the action scenes. The hot opener, set within the world of Argylle, is quite crisp. Two late-in-the-movie shootouts, one with bright colors, one covered in black, indicate that this movie isn’t entirely ruined by its script. But those sequences are maybe 19 combined minutes in a movie with a 139-minute runtime. The other two hours are devoted to a convoluted story that made me squirm with impatience. Not to get to a big reveal, mind you, just for the movie to be over.

There’s a better movie out right now where the protagonist is an author and the action occasionally blends their writing with reality. “American Fiction” is enjoying a nice little bump at the box office thanks to its recent Best Picture Oscar nomination. That movie follows a Black writer (Jeffrey Wright) who, in the margins between drama in his personal life, sarcastically submits a racially-degrading manuscript that turns into a surprise bestseller. The jokes about well-meaning-but-insensitive white people get stale eventually, but it’s still a much smarter and more engaging movie than “Argylle.”

“Argylle”: C-

“American Fiction”: B-

“Argylle” is rated PG-13 for strong violence and action and some strong language. Its running time is 139 minutes.

Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.