A dream international cast leads this female-fronted spy action flick, but even Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong'o and Penélope Cruz can't stop the globe-hopping result from being oh-so-basic.
January 13, 2022
They're globe-hopping, ass-kicking, world-saving spies, but women: that's it, that's The 355. When those formidable ladies are played by a dream international cast of Jessica Chastain (Scenes From a Marriage), Lupita Nyong'o (Us), Penélope Cruz (Pain and Glory), Diane Kruger (In the Fade) and Fan Bingbing (I Am Not Madame Bovary), the tickets should sell themselves — and Chastain, who suggested the concept and produces, wasn't wrong for hoping that. Giving espionage moves the female-fronted spin that Bond and Mission: Impossible never have isn't just this action-thriller's quest alone, of course, and nothing has done so better than Atomic Blonde recently, but there's always room for more. What The 355 offers is an average affair, though, rather than a game-changer, even if it so evidently wants to do for its genre what Widows did for heist flicks.
The film still starts with men, too, causing all the globe's problems — aka threatening to end life as we know it via a gadget that can let anyone hack anything online. One nefarious and bland mercenary (Jason Flemyng, Boiling Point) wants it, but the CIA's gung-ho Mason 'Mace' Browne (Chastain) and her partner Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) head to Paris to get it from Colombian intelligence officer Luis Rojas (Édgar Ramírez, Jungle Cruise), who's gone rogue and is happy to sell; however, German operative Marie Schmidt (Kruger) is also on its trail. The French connection goes wrong, the two women get in each other's ways, but it's apparent — begrudgingly to both — that they're better off together. They need ex-MI6 cyber whiz Khadijah Adiyeme (Nyong'o) to help, while Colombian psychologist Graciela Rivera (Cruz) gets drawn in after making the trip to stop Luis going off the books.
No stranger to covert affairs or formidable women after penning Mr and Mrs Smith, but helming only his second movie following the awful X-Men: Dark Phoenix, director/co-writer Simon Kinberg spreads the action across several continents — including a foot chase in Marrakesh and an auction in Shanghai, which is where Lin Mi Sheng (Fan) joins the story. Scripting with TV veteran Theresa Rebeck (Smash), his big setpieces all play with the film's gender focus, mostly dissecting how women are so often overlooked in various situations; the indifference given wait staff, the invisibility of women in male-dominated societies and the way they're meant to be pure eye candy at black-tie occasions all earn the movie's ire. But these sentiments, like everything else in the feature, are blatant and straightforward at best. The mood the movie vibes with: "James Bond never had to deal with real life," as Cruz is given the misfortune of uttering.
From that aforementioned opening scene through to almost every supporting part, it also never escapes attention that men still run The 355's world. That doesn't just include the obvious, because yes, that's sadly the reality we all still live in and the film is making a statement about that very fact; they're everywhere and everyone in the film, other than its central quintet. Whether to further push Chastain and co to the front or to hammer home what it's like to be a woman in this male-centric life, it doesn't leave any room for ladies who aren't these 'strong female lead'-style super spies. Also glaring: that every single one of Mace, Marie, Khadijah, Graciela and Lin's backstories are defined by men, from other halves of the boyfriend, husband or friends-with-benefits varieties to fathers, mentors, children and patients.
The 355 should be better — with its dialogue, clearly; with its girl-power, girl-boss, girls-can-do-anything messaging; and at celebrating more than five women, or even showing them. (If you were going to pick five ladies to do the job, though, this casting is spot-on.) It could use a sense of style and charm beyond Nyong'o's suits and the gang's personality-matched auction outfits, and its over-edited action scenes put Kinsberg two for two with tanking a crucial part of his directorial efforts to-date. Women can star in mediocre action movies as well, however. That isn't meant to be the picture's big push for gender parity, but The 355 is also exactly what seemingly millions of bland men-led actioners have been serving up for decades upon decades. It packages it up in an Ocean's 8-meets-Bourne approach, or a more self-serious Charlie's Angels, but these run-of-the-mill flicks have long been everywhere, just without as much oestrogen. The Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises have their own, too.
Great idea, winning intentions, stellar cast, generic execution: even by paying all that lip-service to how hard it is to be a woman (especially thanks to those truisms, in fact), that's also The 355. It's lucky that its pseudo–Fox Force Five are so watchable, and so committed to making the most of their thinly written parts, including in their fight choreography — and yes, if only they were gifted some of the fun that Pulp Fiction conjured up about that fictional series, or of Kill Bill, which essentially saw Quentin Tarantino bring the idea to life. A sequel mightn't eventuate for Chastain, the particularly great Kruger, Nyong'o and Cruz, and also Fan to get another spin at the worthy concept, but the groundwork is laid anyway, because that's just one espionage-movie trope in a list of thousands that's delivered here. The 355 is ordinary instead of awful, thankfully, and sometimes it's slightly better than that. But it's also haunted by all those should'ves and could'ves, and by being oh-so-basic with its killer lady spies, their battle against misogyny and their quest to claim some much-needed on-screen space.