Producers: Matthew Vaughn, Adam Bohling, David Reid and Jason Fuchs   Director: Matthew Vaughn   Screenplay: Jason Fuchs   Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Henry Cavill, Dua Lipa, Ariana DeBose, John Cena, Samuel L. Jackson, Bryan Cranston, Catherine O’Hara, Sofia Boutella, Rob Delaney, Jing Lusi and Richard E. Grant   Distributor: Universal

Grade: C

Imagine “Charade” gone completely mad and you’ll have some idea of what “Argylle” is like.  In Stanley Donen’s 1963 comedy-thriller, the viewer, like the heroine played by Audrey Hepburn, was asked to be uncertain which of two men was who he said he was.  The fact that one was played by Cary Grant and the other by Walter Matthau rather pointed to the correct answer, but the movie kept up the pretense of suspense to the very end.

In Matthew Vaughn’s comedy spy adventure, very few of the main characters turn out to be who they say they are.  That’s the chief plot gimmick of the script by Jason Fuchs, and frankly a trick that worked beautifully when used parsimoniously sixty years ago proves exhausting when multiplied many times over.  The conceit is even extended to the question of source material.  Fuchs’s screenplay was supposedly inspired by a recently-published novel by one Elly Conway, but it seems that Conway doesn’t really exist, and there’s been rampant speculation about who the real author is.  Perhaps it’s Fuchs, though some of the speculation has pointed, ludicrously, to somebody far more famous. 

However, the movie isn’t an adaptation of that book, though an end-credits scene suggests that it’s intended to serve in that capacity for a sequel (though the sequence also indicates that such a follow-up would also have connections with the other spy series Vaughan has been shepherding over the last decade).  But it’s doubtful that the other franchise deserves another installment, and the idea that this movie merits any sort of sequel is a stretch, too.

In any event, the character this picture centers on is none other than Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), an author of popular spy novels featuring a debonair agent named Argylle (Henry Cavill).  In her latest installment, Argylle discovers, with the help of his burly, tech-savvy associate Wyatt (John Cena) after an action-packed encounter with a murderous woman named LaGrange (Dua Lipa), that the Directorate he works for, headed by Fowler (Richard E. Grant, wasted in what amounts to a cameo), is corrupt.  The episode has also resulted in the death of his partner Keira (Ariana DeBose).

We learn all this from an illustrated prologue that represents Conway reading from the book to a rapt audience of fans.  Naturally one of the audience asks when the next book can be expected, to which she responds that it’s a work in progress.  What that means is that, returning to the Colorado home she shares with her beloved cat Alfie (played by a feline named Chip, along with lots of GCI-animated stand-ins), she’s finding it difficult to come up with a satisfying ending, and when she sends the manuscript to her mother Ruth (Catharine O’Hara) in Chicago for comment, she advises that the book needs another chapter and offers to brainstorm with her daughter about it.  Elly decides to stow Alfie into her cat-friendly backpack and hop on the train to the Windy City, since she’s afraid of flying.

That’s where the plot kicks in.  She’s approached en route by a scruffy, bearded fellow, Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who claims to be in the espionage business himself.  He then proceeds, in the movie’s second big action sequence, to fend off a bunch of bad guys trying to kill Elly.  She, Aidan and Alfie escape the assassins, and Aidan explains that she’s been targeted because her books have hit too close to home: the real-life Directorate is indeed corrupt, and its nefarious head, Ritter (Bryan Cranston), is afraid that if she continues the series, his malfeasance will be revealed.  Aidan asks her help in tracking down proof of the Directorate’s misdeeds and getting the information to Alfred Solomon (Samuel L. Jackson), its legendary former deputy, so that he can use it to bring Ritter down.

Where things go from there won’t be divulged here; suffice it to say that matters of identity become central to the succession of plot twists, that there are shifts from location to location (London, France, the lair of a mysterious woman played by Sofia Boutella in the Arabian peninsula, and the huge ship that houses Directorate headquarters), and that there are more elaborately staged action sequences, many of them involving billows of multi-colored smoke and flamboyant dances choreographed by George Richmond.  The last of these combines the terpsichorean moves with skating, though the blades are used on a substance other than ice.  There’s a good measure of violence in all this, though it’s mostly of a blood-light variety even when the mayhem gets pretty fierce.

As the revelations pile up, the movie becomes sillier and sillier, and the editing by Tom Harrison-Read and Lee Smith allows scenes to drag (a bout of fisticuffs at the close seems to go on forever).  That’s not to say that some of the twists aren’t surprising—one involving Cranston particularly so.  But the end result isn’t so much clever as strained; Fuchs and Vaughan simply don’t know when enough is enough, and they add so many climaxes to the mix that by the close you’re more annoyed than exhilarated.

On the other hand, there are some amusing bits.  The juxtaposition, from Elly’s perspective, of Cavill’s Argylle and Rockwell’s Aidan in some of the fight scenes is an engaging conceit, and at first an ingenious visual trick, but like so much here, it’s overused.  The production design by Russell De Rozario and Daniel Taylor is fine and sometimes elegant, but the CGI effects are cheesy—presumably intentionally so for comic purposes but nonetheless shocking in a big-budget project—while Lorne Balfe’s score swoons in old-fashioned mode.  Then there’s the product placement: yes, the move is co-produced with Apple+, but does the company logo have to be so prominently displayed on Elly’s laptop?

Whatever fun there is in the performances comes largely from Rockwell, whose talent for goofy line readings and slacker attitude comes off nicely in the first hour or so, until he’s required to get more ordinary in the second half; O’Hara’s comic chops serve her well in the first hour as well, but she too suffers from the plot turns later on.  Cena also gets a few laughs early on, but then disappears, while Cavill’s Bondish imperturbability is entertaining enough, even if his look, especially the hairstyle, is odd, and not in a good way.  Jackson, though, just does his usual tired shtick, and Cranston is actually pretty dreadful.

As for Howard, she’s okay, but doesn’t handle her character’s transformations with much panache.  She’s also forced to deal, for much of the film’s final act, with a long golden gown designed by Stephanie Collie that’s remarkably unflattering.

What one’s left with by the close of “Argylle” is the impression of a single plot device endlessly repeated to cumulatively deadening effect.  What Donen and his writer Peter Stone pulled off with apparent effortlessness here becomes laborious, leaving one anticipating the promised sequel with trepidation rather than pleasure.