It takes a special movie to bring together a cast like the one in The 355. This is an international, five-pointed star showcase of leading lady talent, with the female ensemble headed by Jessica Chastain, who is also a producer on the picture, and complemented by Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, Penélope Cruz, and Fan Bingbing. There are six Oscar nominations between these actors, and two wins. So, yes, it must’ve been a very special project to draw each performer to the same story. Somehow, though, that picture got lost in transit, and we got stuck with The 355 instead.
As a project which made waves at Cannes in 2018—where it triggered a bidding war due to the sheer star wattage and talent of its five leads—the film arrives almost three years later in the ignominious release window of the first weekend of January. This is a timeframe that’s long been associated with low attendance for new releases, even before Omicron. And in its finished, entirely rote form you can see the ambitious idea Chastain and company were going for as five great actresses lead their own spy ensemble saga, playing in a genre traditionally dominated by white male leads.
By contrast, one of the best elements about The 355 is its international pedigree and sharpness to adopt some of the customs and languages of the countries it visits, with Chinese characters actually speaking Mandarin in Shanghai, and Colombian characters speaking Spanish in Colombia. It’s even easy to imagine such choices will cause the film to play well internationally when it moves beyond its stateside debut. Nonetheless, one cannot help but feel this is another squandered good idea, much like the talent brought to the screen.
In truth even the international affectations and bids for authenticity feel like pantomime—the final concessions that might come from one of the more disappointing G8 summits where despite having all that power in one room, the best they can do is agree to meet again next year. And given the inherent mediocrity of The 355, I’m not sure any audience will want to be present for that reunion.
The 355 gets its name from the alias assigned to a still unknown secret agent who worked for the patriots during the American Revolution: She was one of America’s first spies. That tradition is ostensibly carried on by Mason “Mace” Brown (Chastain), a CIA agent who’s so dedicated to the job that she says she has no time to think about a family (or more interesting dialogue and characterization) during her first few scenes. She also begins the movie aggrieved since her longtime male partner and lover has been killed while on assignment in Paris. Worse, she’s been framed to look complicit in the botched operation that also led to an all-powerful digital MacGuffin to fall into the wrong hands.
In the fallout, Mace calls up her old MI6 buddy and veritable “woman in a chair,” Khadijah (Nyong’o). Khadijah is announced by the script to be the best in the world at what she does, which is primarily act like a hacker from an early 2000s thriller. In almost every interstitial scene, she furiously types some keys and then magically knows where the bad guys will gather for the next set-piece. There’s also a German espionage rival named Marie (Kruger), and the Colombian psychiatrist Graciela (Cruz), whose paths get tangled into Mace and Khadijah’s adventure—plus the third act arrival of the uber competent Chinese government given a glamorous sheen by Lin Mi Sheng (Fan).
The plot, like everything else with the script by Theresa Rebeck and Simon Kinberg, is a patchwork of clichés. However, this shouldn’t necessarily be a problem since who watches, say, Mission: Impossible for the plot? Ever since 007 puffed on a cigarette in a casino, the spy genre has lived or died by its style, and unfortunately Kinberg, who is also the director of the piece, fails to inject even a modicum of ingenuity or inspiration to his hopelessly exhausted tropes.
Kinberg, a longtime producer and screenwriter of 20th Century Fox’s latter-day X-Men films, helped oversee the creation of some of the better superhero movies ever made. He also had a more visible hand in some of the worst, including in the only other film he ever directed, Dark Phoenix (which Chastain also starred in). But even that 2019 disappointment had a couple of pretty impressive action sequences, which somehow makes The 355 all the more beleaguering.
This is an ugly and aggressively underwhelming production, with action sequences having all the wit and energy of a chase scene on CSI. Despite having the likes of a master like Lee Smith editing the film—the Oscar winning slicer behind nearly every Christopher Nolan spectacle, as well as 1917 and Master and Commander—there is a garish banality to every limp motorcycle chase, shootout, and fist fight here where copious amounts of coverage and heavy cutting attempts to hide that this is so many medium shots in shaky handheld punctuated by cheesy insert shots of knives or guns being drawn. In many of the shootouts, it even borders on impossible while trying to figure out who is shooting at what despite the “good” and “bad” guys being clearly drawn.
Thus it’s left entirely to the talented cast to muddle through the glaringly obvious plot twists and betrayals, and to mutter perfunctory dialogue about how if they don’t work together “your family’s world is about to end.” Nyong’o and Cruz do the best of the five at powering through these scripted indignities and finding something vaguely approaching the neighborhood of poignant.
It is not a spoiler to say the heroes eventually turn the tables on their enemies, but the whole film feels a lot like Chastain’s predicament at the beginning of the film: a frustratingly botched opportunity to do something significant. Despite the dazzling tools and assets at their disposal, this effort can safely be filed under DOA.
The 355 opens in theaters on Friday, Jan. 7.