Simon Kinberg directs a shaky, dated girl-power actioner that wastes its overqualified cast.
I’ll say this for Simon Kinberg: he’s got to be just about the nicest man in show business. After all, how do you get a second chance at the director’s chair after the unmitigated disaster that was X-Men: Dark Phoenix? According to interviews, he only got that gig at the insistence of Jennifer Lawrence, who would only do the film with him in charge (he was reportedly very easy to work with when Bryan Singer went AWOL on X-Men Apocalypse, forcing Kinberg to pick up the baton). While working on Dark Phoenix, Jessica Chastain approached Kinberg with the idea of starring in and producing a female-led spy franchise a la Mission: Impossible; and so we have The 355, a film seemingly tailor-made to be the kind of mid-budget dross we get every January. Look out, Liam Neeson, you’ve got competition!
The script, penned presumably over a weekend by Theresa Rebeck and Bek Smith, reads like the pilot of a TNT spy series: a doodad (the kind that can hack into anything and “start World War 3,” as these things do) is intercepted during a raid on a Colombia drug kingpin and ends up in the hands of a rogue DNI agent (Edgar Ramirez). Tasked with its recovery is Mason “Mace” Browne (Chastain), the CIA’s loosest of cannons, who has a burgeoning thing going on with her partner Nick (Sebastian Stan). Naturally, their first attempt to snatch the drive goes awry, leading to Nick’s apparent death. Driven by revenge and quickly burned by her government, she seeks the help of some unlikely allies: no-nonsense German agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger), British cyberhacker Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), and DNI psychologist Graciela (Penelope Cruz), who’s loosely connected to Ramirez’s character. (Eventually, Fan Bingbing‘s mercurial MSS agent comes on board as well, but good luck caring.)
What follows is a mess of convoluted plot twists and airport-novel contrivances, as our reluctant team of excommunicated spies dart from one location to the next, tracking the drive from one place to another as it moves hands faster than a game of hot potato. They head to Morocco, where Nyong’o (as the cast’s only Black woman) has to wear a hijab to go undercover. Then it’s over to Shanghai, where they’ve got to get dressed up, Ocean’s 8 style, to infiltrate a secret auction. Mace is betrayed by the person she trusts the most, and every other scene is interrupted by a dozen men bursting into a room with machine guns. The actual story beats are immaterial, and neither Kinberg nor the screenwriters seem to care where they go or if they make sense over their wearying two-hour runtime.
To be fair, it’s not like the kinds of January actioners The 355 emulates had the most air-tight scripts either, but at least they occasionally made up for it with some inventive practical action. And to their credit, Chastain and co. seem up for the task: They kick and punch and shoot machine guns with the best of them, and there are some practical stunts that should theoretically wow. That is, if Kinberg and cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones didn’t fog them up with sub-Greengrass handheld photography and pedestrian setups that further emphasize the whole TV-pilot feel of the thing. (Editors John Gilbert and Lee Smith are likely the most to blame, obscuring the film’s few competent setups with Taken 3-level cutting that chops these sequences to within an inch of their lives.) Even composer Tom Holkenborg is asleep at the wheel here, content to simply bang on the drums for two hours without building the kinds of unexpected thematic layering we expect of his scores.
Perhaps its biggest sin, though, is the way it wastes its overqualified cast on such a toothless, grim, meandering script. Chastain channels the grit and determination of her roles in Zero Dark Thirty and Miss Sloane, but we never get a grasp on what exactly her motivations are besides base revenge. Kruger fares a bit better, injecting Marie with a wily intensity that matches and exceeds Chastain’s. But poor Nyong’o and Cruz (and Fan, though her late insertion into the plot makes her feel incredibly superfluous) are saddled with exceedingly thin characters that are little beyond their skill sets and love lives. Lupita’s saddled with reams of nonsense technobabble; Cruz, as the non-fighter of the group, hyperventilates and panics about how this isn’t the kind of thing she does before pulling through at the last minute. For a film about how women can succeed in a man’s world, they sure feel tied to boyfriends, husbands, and male love interests for their emotional stakes.
It’d help, of course, if we got to watch the five women grow into a powerful team with relatable, fun chemistry. Unfortunately, The 355 only knows how to parrot the structure and cadence of a successful spy caper without actually pulling it off. This cast has at least two Oscars and a host of other awards and nominations between them, but the best actors in the world couldn’t execute on lines like “You don’t care about the cause, you care about the cash” and “Don’t think of it as seduction, think of it as deduction.” Kinberg doesn’t seem like the keenest director of actors, which partly explains how five of the most accomplished, skilled actresses in the world exhibit zero chemistry together.
Partway through Dark Phoenix, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique spits angrily at Charles Xavier, “By the way, the women are always saving the men around here. You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women.” The 355 suffers from that same sense of condescending girl-power politics, acting as though it’s inventing the female-led action film when Atomic Blonde or The Hunger Games or, hell, anything starring Cynthia Rothrock have been doing for decades. Even the title is helpfully explained by Chastain in the closing scene – a reference to the alias given to America’s first female spy during the Revolutionary War. It doesn’t have anything to do with the film itself, or who these particular women are and what they want. But it sure sounds good, doesn’t it?
All of these women have already cut their teeth on intriguing action-thriller roles, whether as starring or supporting players; they deserve a much better showcase than they have here. But then, what do we expect? It’s January. This is the month for films like The 355: side projects that bored movie stars and producers can pull off on their own time for an easy paycheck and an international vacation. Just don’t expect them to be entertaining, or fun, or witty, or anything beyond a pale imitation of the film genres for which they desperately want to fill the gender gap.
The 355 comes to theaters January 7th (though please prioritize your health when making considerations about movie theaters right now.)