A film review by Craig J. Koban April 7, 2022

THE 355 jj
 

2022, PG-13, 122 mins.

Jessica Chastain as Mason 'Mace' Brown  /  Lupita Nyong'o as Khadijah  /  Penélope Cruz as Graciela  /  Diane Kruger as Marie  /  Fan Bingbing as Lin Mi Sheng  /  Sebastian Stan as Nick  Edgar Ramírez as Luis Rojas  /  Emilio Insolera as Hacker

Directed by Simon Kinberg  /  Written by Theresa Rebeck, Simon Kinberg and Bek Smith

The new spy action thriller THE 355 shows what happens when noble minded intentions meets mediocre scripting on pure autopilot.  

It's easy to become taken in with what this Simon Kinberg directed effort is aiming for: a globetrotting espionage affair featuring a squad of female stars taking names and kicking ample ass.  

What's there not to like here?  

I've been saying this for years in my reviews, but Hollywood definitely needs an infusion of women being injected into genre films that have been dominated by men for as long as the medium has existed.  On paper, THE 355 deserves kudos for bucking status quo conventions of the spy thriller by headlining it with a sensationally empowered female cast.  Unfortunately, that's where the rallying cry for inclusivity ends here, seeing as Kingberg's film puts these incredibly talented women in a script on pure generic autopilot that ultimately wastes their skills...and our collective time as a result. 

The plot here involves the search for an all-powerful MacGuffin device that seems like it was ripped off from so many other spy thrillers.  You know the kind: It's a special flash drive that gives the owner of it the ability to do just about anything with a couple of keyboard commands (i.e. - disable financial markets, bring down planes, launch nukes, cripple satellites, etc.).  Like many a MacGuffin that has seen the light of day before, this flash drive essentially exists to thrust the plot into motion and get it from point A to B and finally to C.  Hot on the trail of said device are special CIA operatives Mace Brown (Jessica Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan), who are all business in the field, but give in to their sexual urges and feelings for one another just before launching their next mission together (when is this ever a good sign in these types of thrillers?).  Using extreme method acting to impersonate newlyweds as their cover, the pair are in Paris to hook up with a Columbian intelligence agent (Edgar Ramirez) who is now in possession of the device.  Predictably, their plan to secure it from their fellow comrade in arms fails and leads to one tragic outcome that - like the MacGuffin itself - further thrusts the narrative forward. 

There's a ruthless arms dealer (Jason Flemyng) that's eager to nab the device, and Mace (now separated Nick) fully realizes that she's going to need a special team to coordinate their efforts to stop the nefarious elements that want to use the device to end the world as we know it.  Joining Mace on her new mission are former MI6 agent Khadijah (Lupita Nyong'o), psychologist Graciela (Penelope Cruz), German agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger), and Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan), the latter of whom is in the film so very little that the poster advertising campaign could be accurately labeled as false under modest scrutiny).  All of these women are forced to overcome their direct differences with one another to finally hook up and fluidly synch together as a well oiled team to ensure that World War III isn't started...and the reason the audience is aware of the dangers is that one of the character proclaims at one point - in one example among many of the dull and on-the-nose dialogue littered throughout the film - "If they get this, they start World War III."   

 

 

Maybe the device could also write a better screenplay? 

Of the good things in THE 355 I'll easily say this: the cast!  Oh my, what a cast, indeed.  To be fair, this motley crew of super spies are introduced in a fairly expeditious manner, and we gain a pretty quick insight into what makes them all tick and where their allegiances lie.  To be fair, most of these women are presented more as broad character types than fully realized and three dimensional personas: Mace is the by-the-book and tough as nails; Marie is the rule breaker frequently in trouble with her superiors; Khadijah is the obligatory computer wiz; and Graciela is an everyday woman without any spy skills that's lured into this team because of her keen abilities as a psychologist that offers her a portal into the mindsets of madmen.  All of these actresses are collectively superb in THE 355 and give it their all with the middling material they're given, but special mention needs to be made about how the script sorely wastes Cruz by giving her a screaming, weak willed character that just wants to get home to her husband and children and doesn't want to have anything to do with saving the world.  Yeah, this is as regressive minded as it sounds, and considering Cruz's recent crop of strong performances, she most certainly deserved something meatier and less cookie cutter than what THE 355 spoon feeds her. 

Spy thrillers - regardless of the gender of the cast - live and breathe by the nature of their twists and turns of their ever-evolving plots, and one of the biggest sins of THE 355 is that it offers up little - if any - tangible shocking surprises throughout.  Consider one large red herring: the death early on of one character (no spoilers) that's never explicitly shown on screen, but everyone close to this character believes it to be true (when this character shows up late into the proceedings - much to the shock of everyone around him - it's less mind-blowing than it is tediously predictable).  The machinations of the plot are pretty glaringly obvious the more THE 355 careens from one beat to the next, to the point where it all but zaps away any pretence of suspense that Kinberg and company were clearly aiming for here.  If you're a modest fan of spy thrillers, then navigating through THE 355 will feel more like an arduous homework assignment than something to get lost within while trying to decipher its inherent secrets.  It's also not a good look when these seemingly razor sharp female spies can't seem to piece together what in the hell is happening in the story as quickly as the audience can. 

You would hope that the action sequences - at the very least - would be the saving grace of THE 355, but - sigh - they're so hyper edited and over cut to eye straining levels that you want to just throw your hands up in air out of sheer frustration.  Not every action film is going to attain the surgical precision and coherent chorography of a JOHN WICK or an ATOMIC BLONDE, but I have to ask this question (as I have endlessly over the last few years): Why are films like THE 355 supremely guilty of continually making the same stylistic mistakes with action sequences that have annoyingly typified too many action films these days?  Why is there so much shaky cam theatrics?  Why are the chase montages editorial hatchet jobs?  Why can't individual shots last longer than 2-3 seconds at a time?  THE 355 is wasteful in multiple areas: It adheres to far too many overused spy thriller troupes and it slavishly adheres to the worst aesthetic instincts of bad action pictures.  And it's not that this film looks cheap (the gloss of its budget is clearly apparent), but that it's so cheaply uninspired on a conceptual level.  That's the film's major undoing. 

Of course, we get that wink-wink sequel bait ending that sets up a new chapter that will clearly never come (the box office returns for THE 355 were franchise destroyingly bad back in January).  Would I want to see these beyond capable woman headline another film together?  Unequivocally...in a heartbeat...but just not in a sequel to THE 355.  The risk of being critically hard on films like this is that one could come across as being against gender-swapping of iconic male centered genres.  I want to see more movies with a team-up of splendid female stars leading the charge and flipping the tables on stale formulas.  On paper, what THE 355 sets out to do is commendable.  However, replacing men with women in these types of films and then failing to evolve the conventions of said films isn't enough and unavoidably isn't very cutting edge or progressive minded in the slightest.  The women of THE 355 shine brightly, but the underlining material handed to them is simply too dull and lacking in sophistication.  

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