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The 355 Review: Spy Movie Has Five Amazing Leads and Three Crippling Problems


Jessica Chastain
Image via Universal Pictures

Revolutionary War history know-it-alls will tell you that “The 355” was the codename for a patriotic female spy whose name was unknown. Simon Kinberg’s new film bearing her name features five talented actresses whose names are well-known and whose talents are undeniable, shining through with every gunshot and dropkick featured in this film. But raw star power alone is not enough to carry a movie, and these five amazing leads cannot rescue The 355  from three ultimately ruinous problems: too much repetition, a lack of originality, and unfortunate predictability.

The 355 opens in the Colombian jungle, where Edgar Ramirez (Jungle Cruise) is brokering some sort of drug or arms deal gone wrong. Fast-forward a few seconds and several thousand miles, and we find ourselves in the streets of Paris, where CIA asset Mace Brown (Jessica Chastain) and her partner (in both crime and love) Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) are approaching Ramirez’s character. The mark is believed to be in possession of a potentially world-ending weapon, and the good guys want it back.

As it turns out, lonesome German spy Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger) is also after the weapon and willing to fight everyone for it. Later still, the impressive cast is rounded out when Penelope Cruz jumps in as Graciela, a spy agency psychologist unwittingly drawn into the proceedings, a skeptical Lupita Nyong’o is recruited into action by Mace, and the mysterious Lin Mi Cheng (Chinese pop star Fan Bingbing) crashes the party.

Kinberg’s script and direction adds up to a paint-by-numbers spy story, with all the good and bad that comes with such a label. The good manifests itself as exciting special effects, chase sequences, and gun battles, carefully seamed together by John Gilbert and Lee Smith’s meticulous and fast-paced editing, which deliberately changes speed to show off what Tim Maurice-Jones‘ cinematography has captured.

These ladies — or their stunt doubles, as the case may be — easily kick butt, disarming most foes while bringing a refreshing, feminine perspective to the action-packed proceedings. In some ways, The 355 is better than the tried-and-true genre that spawned it, at least in those precious moments where we see the women display all the complexity that real-life women possess as dedicated workers, colleagues, mothers, partners, and friends. The 355 features two or three such moments, as well as an amusing, self-referential joke about James Bond always ending up alone, and it almost added up to this year’s first pleasant surprise at the movies.

The 355
Image via Universal Pictures

Unfortunately, paint-by-numbers spy thrillers are also laden with problems, and Kinberg is never quite able to shake them off in this picture. For one, these kinds of movies are typically predictable, and the twists and turns that come out of The 355 can be spotted from halfway around the globe, given away by inconspicuous camera cutaways and sloppily inserted lines that portend the future.

Second, The 355 is wholly lacking in originality except for the few precious moments when the script veers into the more stimulating and creative moments that turn “girl power” on its head. Otherwise, we’ve seen all this before — the bad guy wanting to destroy the world; the agents working at cross purposes until they do not; the moles within the groups; and the clap-inducing transformation of the unwitting participant into dashing heroine. All of these tropes make appearances, as they have in nearly every spy film that has preceded this one.

Still, predictable cliches are one thing that most audiences (and even curmudgeonly critics) can forgive in movies that inhabit this space — assuming they’re entertaining enough. The third and perhaps most fundamental problem with The 355 is that it quickly stops being so. The movie quickly devolves into a Frankenstein’s monster pastiche of disjointed vignettes where the talented ladies chase after the mysterious, destructive weapon. They locate it with cool tech and knock some baddies’ heads together, only to see the artifact escape at the end of the sequence or shortly thereafter. Wash, rinse, and repeat, somewhere between four and six times, though I admittedly stopped counting.

The action takes the group from Bogota to Paris, Marrakech, and Shanghai — some of the world’s most interesting cities. It has them using Spanish, German, Mandarin, Arabic, and English — the world’s most prolific languages. And yet each passport stamp is for naught, each opportunity wasted. Each of these exotic locales is simply a stand-in for another skyscraper, another crowded street market, another set of alleyways in which to chase the bad guys. Can you guess how it finally ends?

It’s too bad, because The 355 really is delightful at times, and seeing these five award-winning actresses on the screen together is entertaining. Like any action movie worth its salt these days, the film sets up a sequel, so here’s hoping the producers manage to find a way to boldly push these characters into unchartered spy territory. That is the space with which this film flirts, but into which it never quite pulls the trigger.

Grade: C+

The 355 is now playing in theaters nationwide.

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