“Who is the real Agent Argylle?” Who cares.

Sam Rockwell plays the charming spy Aidan, and Bryce Dallas Howard plays acclaimed spy novel writer Elly Conway in “Layer Cake” director Matthew Vaughn’s new movie, “Argylle.” // Photo courtesy of IMDb

It’s a spy thriller with no intrigue, an action movie with no thrills and a comedy with no laughs. It’s the best of no worlds. It’s “Argylle.”

“Argylle” is the latest espionage flick from director Matthew Vaughn, most known for his gonzo “Kingsman” movies that take the spy movie formula to its extremes. A few months before the release of “The King’s Man,” the third movie in the series, Apple paid $200 million to acquire the rights to Vaughn’s “Argylle” in hopes it would become a franchise. It probably will not.

The film’s conceit is simple enough. Elly Conway, played by a stilted Bryce Dallas Howard, is a hugely popular spy novelist who writes — wait for it — the “Argylle” novels. The novel’s main character, Argylle, is a world-renowned spy on a mission to steal the “master list” from an evil organization called The Division, led by a sporadically fun Bryan Cranston.

Quickly, while writing her next book, Elly meets Aidan, played by Sam Rockwell, as the only charming part of the film. Aidan tells her that he is an actual spy, and people are coming to capture her because the events in her books are coming true in the real-life espionage world. Fistfights ensue. 

Elly gets swept up into the world of spycraft, trying to solve the mystery of her seemingly prophetic books while working to take down The Division.

The movie feels like “Mission Impossible” as written by ChatGPT, giving far too much information about uninteresting diversions and virtually no answers to basic questions.

What does The Division do that is so evil? No idea. What is the “master list?” Unclear. On multiple occasions, Aidan just refers to The Division as “the bad guys,” which shows how much hand-holding Vaughn thinks his audience needs. 

“Mainframes” are overridden, and “anarchist hackers” are killed in this spy-jargon-bingo-card of a script, but the familiar cliches never come close to masking the pure laziness of the writing.

Radical, game-changing plot twists seem to appear in five-minute intervals. Characters change allegiances on a whim, others are shot only to later reveal secret bulletproof vests and one surprise is so absurd that Aidan exclaims, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” 

He’s right. The whole twist makes so little sense — and it would take so long to think about all the ways it doesn’t — that it is just easier to move on and go with the flow of the movie. The writers’ anything-goes attitude towards the story leaves realism so far behind that the audience is numbed to even the most
earth-shattering reveal. 

Other better screenwriters understand this. “The Sixth Sense” and “The Usual Suspects” work because each has one coherent twist that makes the rest of the film make more sense — not twenty revelations that only add to the confusion.

To make things worse, the jarring story turns don’t hold up to even the slightest bit of narrative scrutiny. The writers know it too. Often, after the story is written firmly into a corner, Elly will miraculously “remember” an incredibly helpful repressed memory. If only she weren’t so forgetful beforehand! The twists feel less like clever devices and more like the writers’ get-out-of-jail-free cards.

Don’t mistake criticism of the movie’s writing for evidence that the rest of the film is better, though. It’s not. 

As many have pointed out, it is one of the worst-looking films of the past decade. It at least makes the movie watchable since it conjures “Argylle’s” only intriguing mystery — figuring out where Apple’s $200 million went.

Everything in the film is clearly either cheap CGI or green screen, making backgrounds feel fake and action scenes feel animated. By the time the film’s bombastic final showdown comes around, it is no surprise to anyone that it looks like a video game cutscene. Elly and Aidan travel around the world, but all the viewer sees is the pair traveling from one side of a soundstage to the other. 

So much of the “Mission Impossible” and James Bond movies’ appeal comes from their seamless effects and exotic locales. These easy wins in any other spy movie end up being just another missed opportunity for “Argylle.”

Matthew Vaughn is capable of better. “Argylle” should have been a fun romp, an homage to classic spy movies. It is a shame filmmaking laziness prevented his movie from living up to its predecessors.