Photo: Universal Pictures
Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger, Penélope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o, and Fan Bingbing are a strong team in a weak film
Every portion of Simon Kinberg’s turgid, clumsy spy flick The 355 sounds good on paper: Five of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actresses come together to portray global intelligence officers fleeing from their respective governments, in a film melding Oceans 8 and the Jason Bourne, James Bond, and Mission: Impossible franchises with the recent trend toward aggressively female-fronted action films. (From 2021 alone: Kate, Gunpowder Milkshake, The Protégé, and Jolt.) In their unification, the women denote inclusion, empowerment, and validation. The 355’s nonsensical script, written by Theresa Rebeck and Kinberg, shoves those positives down audiences’ throats, without ever making them specific or insightful enough to signify anything.
For Kinberg, the writer of 2005’s Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie star vehicle Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the spy genre should be familiar territory. In fact, you can see him reaching for the same romantic dynamic between his leads here. CIA officers Mace (Jessica Chastain) and Nick (Sebastian Stan) open the film trying to recover a deadly data key being held in Paris by turned Colombian DNI agent Luis (Édgar Ramírez). Though Nick is smitten with Mace, and even proposes to her, she doesn’t want to give up her high-energy career in favor of a stable life. Chastain and Stan, unfortunately, are not Jolie and Pitt. They have all the chemistry of cheap red wine spilled on a white carpet.
Kinberg complicates the setup with a dull web of intrigue: Chastain and Stan are competing with other governments bidding to retrieve the data key. Their field agents include firmly independent German BDN agent Marie (Diane Kruger) and Graciela (Penélope Cruz), a married mother of two and DNI therapist who’s close to Luis and hoping to bring him back into the fold. The quartet are later betrayed by an unknown baddie whose identity doesn’t require much brain power to figure out. Their respective countries all believe they’ve become turncoats too, so to clear their names, Mace, Graciela, and Marie team with MI6 computer specialist Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) and Chinese MSS agent Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing).
Photo: Universal Pictures
Of the quintet, Chastain is the least believable as a spy. When talking on her hidden earpiece, she often infuriatingly puts her hand nearly around her entire head, making her cover obvious in crowds. In the sequences where the five women try to infiltrate a Moroccan bazaar, costume designer Stephanie Collie opts for an ostentatious style over practicality, dressing Chastain in a giant white fedora and cream-colored suit. Who wouldn’t spot a lavishly dressed white woman who’s talking to herself, one hand covering her ear, amongst a bevy of plainly dressed brown folks?
The questionable costume decisions isn’t the only craft miscue. Though The 355 tries to maneuver with the kinetic verve of a globetrotting adventure, the marks of shooting on generic sets are all over this film. At times, the only visual difference between Shanghai and Morocco is whether the quintet of spies is standing in front of a wall with Arabic characters scrawled across it, or Chinese letters instead.
The action sequences also leave a lot to be desired. A foot chase involving Chastain and Stan in Paris, relying on sudden zooms and noxious handheld camera movements, rings as a hollow pastiche of the Jason Bourne shaky-cam action style, which is both a huge cliché for action films, and now passé. Another chase, winding through shipping containers and scaling up dock cranes, bears similarities to the epic construction setpiece in Casino Royale, but without the fun or quality.
It might be easier to stomach these lesser-than homages to superior films if The 355’s premise didn’t feel so dated. The data key the quintet wants to recover holds the ability to hack bank accounts, security systems, and information from across the world. It’s apparently the only one in existence. In Mace’s words, the device could let ill-intentioned countries exist in the shadows, rather than operating out in the open. This common technology isn’t new, though — it’s ubiquitous in real life. And the concept of unknown enemies wreaking havoc from behind the scenes is just as common in spy films, with movies like Skyfall and Enemy of the State addressing it in much more intriguing ways.
Photo: Universal Pictures
Kinberg tries to blend this stale concept within a feminist story with a well-meaning aim, but a ham-fisted execution. Without no setup to justify the leap, he calibrates these women’s mission as a unified battle against a misogynist system. But apart from the on-the-nose dialogue around the film’s conclusion — the baddie fumes to an operative: “You were beaten by a bunch of girls!” — Kinberg never gestures at any specific misogynist target to be addressed or defeated. He just cloyingly suggests that the mere idea of five women working together is inherently empowering.
A later fight scene that features the quintet of spies battling a rogue agent in a high-rise borrows heavily from Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, but without the same verve or intensity. By this point, these stars, all solid performers in their own right, have carried an entire movie that’s beneath their talent. The work they put into physical training and nailing their fight choreography is visible. They accrue individual highlights: Cruz, in particular, offers a grounded performance. But at every turn, the filmmaking undermines them, from the empty compositions (like Netflix’s misbegotten action film Red Notice, The 355 relies on widescreen without filling the frame) to the unimaginative editing and queasy camera movement.
Kinberg desperately wants this spy adventure to operate on the same level as other venerable action franchises but it takes more than star power or even a worthy cause to accomplish such heights. That kind of quality requires careful plotting and thoughtful writing. (It’s never clear how these spies are able to travel around the world undetected in a modern surveillance state, after their respective governments have burned them.) The final scene, a gauche comeuppance for the sexist at the heart of this plot, involves the women looking at a happy family. They lament over how their accomplishments will never be known or remembered. It would be better, for all involved, unfortunately, if this ill-conceived movie was forgotten, too.
The 355 opens in theaters on Jan. 6.