Friday, 23 February 2024

‘Argylle’ stylish spy caper with lots of twists and turns


Back to a time before the internet and cell phones, there was an advertising campaign for cassette recording tapes, with the tagline: “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” Could you tell if the sound was genuine, authentic, and real from the artist, or was it a recorded copy?

Not sure why this ad sticks in my head, but it came to mind in thinking about whether the espionage story was real or not in the spy action thriller “Argylle,” wherein the line between a novelist’s fictional world and the real one begins to blur.

During the COVID lockdown, visionary filmmaker Matthew Vaughn screened for his two daughters Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic “North by Northwest,” in which an ordinary man gets swept up in an espionage-tinged adventure.

The appreciation by his offspring for the film led to the motivation to make a movie in that ostensible genre. Just as inspiring might be “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are a married couple unaware that each harbors a secret of being an assassin for rival agencies.

The genesis for what Vaughn wanted to do soon landed on his desk in the form of a manuscript for an unpublished spy novel by an unknown author. Elly Conway’s book, “Argylle,” was, according to Vaughn, the best spy thriller he had ever read.

Befitting an espionage story, there’s an aura of mystery surrounding Elly Conway such that news outlets have been reporting that she may actually be two persons. Or maybe she doesn’t exist at all.

There’s wild speculation that Taylor Swift, or maybe J.K. Rowling, had penned the mysterious spy novel. The Taylor Swift theory would be interesting, but she hardly needs more exposure now that TV cameras frequently capture her at Kansas City Chiefs football games.

As far as the movie goes, Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a reclusive author of a series of best-selling espionage novels, who is most comfortable at her Colorado home with her computer and her cat, Alfie.

Cat lovers may become fascinated with Alfie, who carries an attitude of cool disinterest or contempt and goes everywhere with Elly in a backpack with a plastic window. There will also be curiosity about Alfie’s breed, a Scottish Fold who looks adorably grumpy.

With a loyal fan base, Elly leaves her cocoon to interact with her followers, some of whom even wear clothing with the underlying theme of her books, namely: “The greater the spy, the bigger the lie.”

The spy novels feature characters who come to life, including the refined agent named Argylle (Henry Cavill with an odd haircut); his best friend Wyatt (John Cena), the muscle; and Keira (Ariana DeBose), their fearless field tech.

Richard E. Grant’s Fowler is a senior member of agent Argylle’s secret organization, and Grammy-winning superstar Dua Lipa’s Lagrange is Argylle’s elegant, lethal nemesis who gets involved in an elaborate, thrilling chase scene in scenic Greece.

While reading from her book to a captivated audience of fans, Elly is asked what’s in store for their favorite secret agent. She can only say that it’s a work in progress, which she’s either not willing to share or has no clue.

Retreating to the coziness of home, Elly shares her thoughts with her mother Ruth (Catherine O’Hara) for some advice on writing a forthcoming tome. Deciding to return home to Chicago, Elly packs up Alfie and takes the train since she’s afraid to fly.

Things take an interesting turn on the train ride when a stranger takes a seat across from Elly. His name is Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a scruffy looking dude with long hair and beard who looks like he has not changed clothes in forever.

Aidan recognizes Elly because he’s in the middle of reading her book. He claims to be in the espionage business as well as a fan, and then all hell breaks loose when armed thugs arrive to kill Elly, because apparently her books are too prescient and revealing about a corrupt group known as the Directorate.

Puzzled and frightened about what is happening, Elly is not too sure about Aidan but has no other choice than to be whisked away and go on the run with her savior to elude a horde of trained assassins.

At this point, it would be best to let the rest of the plot remain a surprise with its surfeit of twists and turns. Not a surprise is Samuel L. Jackson showing up as another man of mystery because he’s in the trailer.

As seems to be the case all too often these days, “Argylle” has a running time that is more than necessary even if it relies on a lot of smoke and mirrors obfuscating a spy caper that is already mystifying enough in its delivery.

“Argylle” does not lack for stylish action, with violence elegantly choreographed. In fact, just watching the film’s trailer reveals some of the best action scenes without spoiling the cliffhanger.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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