Here's a partial list of things that will help to be familiar with before you see "Argylle": James Bond movies, figure skating camel spins, vintage disco moves, "The Manchurian Candidate," the "Kingsman" films, basic spycraft.
"Argylle" is a jam-packed, insanely complicated film, technically an original concept but one that is so deeply embedded in such a dizzying breadth of pop culture references that almost everyone who sees it is guaranteed to be lost at some point. At heart a spoof of 007 adventure movies, it plays out like "The Spy Who Confused Me."
The premise is that Bryce Dallas Howard (in a role that seems to have been written for someone funnier — Melissa McCarthy?) is a skittish spy novelist. Her characters — led by dashing, James Bond-like Argylle (Henry Cavill) — occasionally spring off her pages to appear, at least to her, in human form. While that's happening, she's also surrounded by actual CIA and MI5 agents who are trying to get their hands on some codes or a logbook or an encrypted hard drive or something. Anyway, it's super-secret but everyone in the movie knows about it.
I liked the first half of "Argylle," when it feels most like the goofy spy spoofs that proliferated in the '60s and that still pop up occasionally on movie channels — fizzy charmers like "Charade" and "Our Man Flint."
Director Matthew Vaughn, who also made the "Kingsman" movies, has evident affection for the silliness of espionage tropes, and Sam Rockwell, who plays a mystery man who pops into the writer's life on one of those speeding trains where violent things always happen in these movies, understands the assignment. Rockwell, who took on a similar gig in the underappreciated "See How They Run," is goofy when he needs to be, debonair when he needs to be and adaptable to the extremely changeable nature of the film.
Rockwell is even on-point when things take a turn for the earnest in the second half of "Argylle," but Vaughn never figures out a way for that shift to make sense. He has a stacked cast, including Catherine O'Hara, Rockwell's fellow Oscar winner Ariana DeBose, Bryan Cranston, Samuel L. Jackson and pop star Dua Lipa, but all of them are underused.
DeBose and Lipa, in particular, are barely in the movie and others in the supporting cast seem miscast until the many, many plot twists start to pile up. Some of the twists are not only fun but actually help us make sense of what's going on with the characters in "Argylle," but they eventually become so frequent that they're annoying. And when the stakes change every five minutes in a movie, that's the same thing as there being nothing at stake.
The result is a movie I very much wish I had liked more than I did. There aren't as many clever ideas as Vaughn thinks there are (a problem in all of his work) but there are some genuinely sharp elements in "Argylle." And, if the cliffhanger on which it ends is any indication, I'd be thrilled to see Rockwell play his character in future sequels.
Next time, though (if there is one), I hope the movie settles down long enough for us to invest in what's going on.
** out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for language and cartoony violence.
Where: In theaters.