Argylle review – unbearably self-satisfied smirk of a spy caper from Matthew Vaughn

<span>Photograph: Peter Mountain</span>
Photograph: Peter Mountain

The rectangle of the screen itself seems to bend and twist into a giant self-satisfied smirk for this unbearably smug caper from director Matthew Vaughn. It has all the interest of a men’s magazine cover-shoot: thin, flimsy, lumbered with a dull meta-narrative and dodgy acting, and boasting a blank parade of phoned-in cameos from the supporting cast. Argylle is a high-concept elevator pitch stuck between floors, a piece of colourful would-be franchise content that Vaughn is tiresomely trying to fold into the extended universe of his other work.

I have in the past enjoyed this director’s raucous bad taste, and it’s not true to say that he can only direct macho guys because he got such great stuff from Chloë Grace Moretz in his superhero comedy Kick-Ass. But through some terrible directing anti-alchemy, he has elicited an awful lead performance here from Bryce Dallas Howard as spy novelist Elly Conway, whose creations uncannily mirror real life. She looks waxy, inert and uncomfortable; it’s as if she is wearing cut-glass contact lenses, with a torpid, unfocused quality which the script’s big twist does not explain or excuse. Vaughn and screenwriter Jason Fuchs never give this writer any funny or interesting lines or find a satisfying way to let her character in on the unwieldy joke and bring out her supposed dual quality as action heroine – although it was, admittedly, ingenious of Vaughn and Fuchs to bring out a novelisation of the film this month supposedly written by “Elly Conway” herself.

We are shown a super spy called Argylle, a dapper, jaunty Brit stolidly played by Henry Cavill with a silly square haircut and some sort of goofy velveteen jacket, in a safe pair of manicured hands performance. He confronts LaGrange, a slinky femme-fatale killer played by Dua Lipa, and teams up with his comrades Wyatt (John Cena) and Keira (Ariana DeBose). But we are also shown the more down to earth life of Conway, a bestselling spy writer, taking adoring questions from her fanbase at sold-out bookstore readings, putting the finishing touches to the latest novel in her “Argylle” series and testily taking notes about the ending in a Zoom call with her adoring mother, Ruth, played by Catherine O’Hara.

But just as she is making a train journey to see her mom, a wild-haired grinning guy called Aidan (Sam Rockwell) plonks down in the empty seat opposite. He professes himself to be her biggest fan, explaining that he is a professional spy and that a number of important and scary people in his world are taking an interest in the extraordinary way she is able to predict exactly what they are getting up to. These people include a certain Mr Ritter (Bryan Cranston), who runs a renegade evil-empire setup called “The Division”.

This could theoretically be a fun movie, but it is all so self-conscious and self-admiring, with key action sequences rendered null and void by being played on two levels, the imaginary and the real, so cancelling each other out. The thought of Argylle 2 and Argylle 3 is very dispiriting. The books might do better.

• Argylle is released on 1 February in Australia and on 2 February in the UK and the US.