for sequences of strong violence, brief strong language, and suggestive material.
Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong'o, Penelope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Fan Bingbing
Kelly Carmichael, Jessica Chas
Universal Pictures on
The spy movie category isn't so sparsely populated that the arrival of a mediocre entry like The 355 is going to excite anyone. Notable exclusively for having a quintet of female leads, the movie resides somewhere above Ocean's 8 and below Atomic Blonde in its attempt to gender-flip a traditionally male genre. The fatal flaw has nothing to do with the concept and everything to do with the execution. The screenplay, credited to director Simon Kinberg and Theresa Rebeck, leaves no spy cliché unturned while offering little that's interesting or compelling. The ending is a rushed mess that not only fails to satisfy but leaves open the (unlikely) possibility of a sequel.
The 355 is more like a "female Mission: Impossible" than a "female James Bond," due to the team-nature of the cast. (Although a desperate Universal Pictures has resorted to the marketing ploy of "from the studio that brought you Jason Bourne.") There's plenty of pointless, repetitive action and a lot of globetrotting, although the locations look so similar on the ground that it can be difficult to remember where the characters are. Paris? Marrakesh? London? The 355 boasts exactly one genuinely suspenseful scene (it happens around the 3/4 point) but that lasts only about five minutes and therefore represents less than 5% of the overall running time.
Jessica Chastain and Sebastian Stan play CIA operatives Mace Brown and Nick Fowler, who are on the trail of the film's McGuffin, an overpowered control pad that gives the user (once it has been unencrypted) control over any computer system anywhere in the world. It can be used to bring down planes, crash power grids, etc. Brown and Fowler aren't the only members of the intelligence world trying to get it. Also involved are former MI6 agent Khadijah (Lupita Nyong'o), Columbian operative Luis Rojas (Edgar Ramirez) and his psychologist, Graciela (Penelope Cruz), German BND agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger), and the mysterious Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan). Of course, there's also a bad guy involved - in this case, a ruthless arms dealer played by Jason Flemyng.
At times, the film's contrivances stray into common territory for the genre - for example, one supposedly dead character turns out not to be pushing up daisies. But there are times when the coincidences are so outlandish that they verge on parody. Consider, for example, the cache of conveniently placed weapons that the characters discover just in time for the big showdown. This is coupled with the inconceivable decision not to have them all killed when at the mercy of the bad guys, which makes no sense whatsoever considering the context. Then there's the question of why characters engage in lengthy pauses before pulling the trigger (allowing them to be disabled prior to dealing the killing blow). The less said about the final fifteen minutes, the better, because there's nothing in the final act that works, regardless of how kindly one might be disposed toward the preceding 105 minutes.
A few things contribute to The 355 failing at being more than a two-hour distraction. In the first place, there are too many underdeveloped characters. Jessica Chastain's Mace, who gets the most screen time, comes with an ill-defined backstory, a poorly-realized romance, and a really dumb boss. I guess we're expected to root for her because she's played by Jessica Chastain. Mace lacks the magnetism of Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt (although, to be fair, Cruise has had a number of installments in which to develop his character). The members of her "team" lack definition beyond buzzwords like "computer genius," "regular person," and "bitter loner."
Aesthetically, The 355 boasts a big-budget look. Whatever his flaws as a screenwriter, director Simon Kinberg (who previously worked with Chastain on the final X-Men installment, Dark Phoenix) gives his film a high gloss finish. It consistently looks good. The special effects are suitably impressive and mostly understated (or at least as understated as is possible for a high-tech spy thriller) and the stunts are expertly executed. But it's all in the service of a generic package. With a McGuffin this all-powerful, one would expect something more from not only the device itself but the different factions chasing it. The lack of suspense (except in the aforementioned scene) is surprising. The 355 is watchable at best but, in keeping with the Bond analogy, this is more like a gender-flipped version of Octopussy than Skyfall.
© 2022 James Berardinelli
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