Agents on a Train

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It’s Oscar month, and with ten nominees instead of the traditional five, and having seen only three of those nominees so far, I really should be watching the other seven. I owe it to you, dear reader, to give you my opinions. And I’ll try! I honestly will.

Honestly, I went to the theater planning to slog through three hours of Killers of the Flower Moon, or see what’s up with American Fiction. But there was Argylle, a new Matthew Vaughn film, beckoning me from the cineplex billboard. It promised mayhem, laughs, twists, and delirious confusion — not to mention Sam Rockwell, Henry Cavill, Bryan Cranston, and Catherine O’Hara – well, what could I do? Oscar can wait — I hadn’t read a single review of Argylle, but my popcorn was on Matthew Vaughn (the Kingsman series; Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels; Snatch; X-Men).

Argylle is a delirious, semi-serious spoof of an action spy thriller that builds to a hilarious denouement so over the top that it hits the bullseye. Along the way, bullets fly, knives are hurled, bodies are bashed, heads are conked, smoke bombs billow a rainbow of fog — and unlike Bullet Train, no blood spews. The scenes could have been choreographed by Wile E. Coyote.

It’s a frothy delight, one that dissipates as quickly as cotton candy on the tongue or the mist from a fog machine.


So what’s the story? Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a popular and successful writer of spy thrillers, knocking out a book a year in her series about the suave, chiseled, charismatic British agent Argylle (Henry Cavill), who saves the world one episode at a time in a manner copyrightably similar to that of James Bond. The episodes are also uncannily similar to actual spy missions that have been occurring around the world, and that raises the interest of opposing spy organizations who want to know how she’s doing it, and more importantly, what’s going to happen next.

Unlike her characters, Elly is a timid soul, out of touch and out of shape, more comfortable sitting at home with her cat Alfie or videochatting with her mother (Catherine O’Hara) than exploring the world. She’s even afraid to fly. On a train trip to visit her mother, Elly meets Aiden Wilde (Sam Rockwell), an erstwhile hippie claiming to be a spy, when he takes the seat across from her, and the mayhem begins. Bullets fly, knives are hurled, bodies are bashed — well, we’ve already been through all that. What makes these fight scenes so fun is that Aiden and Argylle become mixed in Elly’s brain, so we see Rockwell launch into the air, Argylle land and roll, Aiden whip out a gun to take aim, and both of them intent on protecting Elly. The choreography and editing of these stunts are marvelously entertaining.

I loved this film. It’s funny, engaging, witty, and full of unexpected plot twists that literally made me gasp. It’s Kingsman without the gore, Get Smart without the slapstick, and James Bond without the martini. And it’s good.

So why has the film received dismal reviews and their accompanying dismal box office receipts? The aggregate of reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a splat of 35%. My guess is that it’s because the casting is uneven. Rockwell, Cavill, Cranston, and the bevy of Asian beauties are just right for this spoof of an action thriller, but Howard and O’Hara seem miscast, or misdirected — or both. And the critics don’t always get it right: the Audience Approval rating after opening night is a respectable 65%.

Bullets fly, knives are hurled, bodies are bashed — well, we’ve already been through all that.


Bryan Cranston is perfect as Ritter, the director of the rogue spy network Division; whether he’s orchestrating meth labs, running a family, or taking over the world, Cranston knows his character and plays him well in every film. By contrast, Bryce Dallas Howard is characteristically wooden, even as she smiles brightly to please the camera. Best known for her continuing role as Claire Dearing in the new Jurassic World series and uncredited cameo appearances in many of her father’s (Ron Howard’s) films, she is a lightweight as an actress and does not belong in action films (or maybe in any film in which her character is the lead). She’s pretty and eager, but she is too aware of the role she is playing to really sink into the part. I kept wondering what Jennifer Lawrence or Scarlett Johannsen might have done with this role.

As for Catherine O’Hara, she’s a delicious comedic actress with impeccable timing and impeccable judgment about her characters. I expected much more from her than the mild, frowsy housewife endlessly chopping vegetables as she videochats with her adult daughter. Where is the accent-impaired, bewigged, self-absorbed Moira Rose of Schitt’s Creek, or the driven, determined, nobody-gets-in-my-way Kate McAllister of Home Alone? Argylle is a spoof, for heaven’s sake – get out there and spoof!

Both Howard and O’Hara hit their stride in Act 2, and the fun takes flight. While their performances in Act 1 let much of the air out of the film’s expanding balloon, it falls on Rockwell’s nimble shoulders to pump the energy back up. And he does, carrying every scene, and carrying his team with him. By Act 3, I was even loving Bryce Howard. Watch for what she does with a pair of knives to get out of trouble in the oil tanker. You’ve never seen that in an action flick!

Despite my slight beef with Howard, this film is great fun and well worth an evening at the movie theater. It’s a frothy delight, one that dissipates as quickly as cotton candy on the tongue or the mist from a fog machine (Vaughn’s set designer must have found them on sale), But that’s all right — you’ll enjoy it just as much the second time around, when it shows up on one of your two hundred streaming services.

* * *

Review of Argylle, directed by Matthew Vaughn. Universal Pictures, 2024, 139 minutes.

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