Delayed by a year due to Covid, Universal’s The 355 is a mediocre action thriller that is no better or worse by virtue of starring five accomplished actresses in action hero mode. The film makes no self-congratulatory references to this fact, and to its credit it avoids many of the tropes found in the recent slew of female-centric actioners. No one is burdened by overwhelming guilt over their bloody occupation, and none of the women are entrusted with the protection of a precocious kid. The only member who is burdened by theoretically neglecting her family is the woman who isn’t really a spy and ends up ensnared in the adventure by happenstance. Ironically, the year’s first big theatrical release is the kind of film that absent the international star power would have been an above-average Lionsgate Premiere VOD title.
Penned by Theresa Rebeck and Simon Kinberg, with Kinberg in the director’s chair, The 355 is a pretty by-the-book espionage actioner, complete with red herrings, fake outs and a McGuffin which can allow anyone to disrupt the entire world at a the click of a button. That device is discovered by accident during an unrelated DNI siege in the film’s bloody prologue, and the (un)lucky agent (Édgar Ramírez) offers it up to the CIA for $3 million and safe passage. The seemingly simple exchange goes awry when a rival BND agent (Diane Kruger) tries to intercede only for secondary forces to take advantage of the chaos and get away with the item. With a CIA agent (Sebastian Stan) allegedly killed in action and his partner (Jessica Chastain) potentially taking the blame, the stakes become increasingly personal for all interested parties.
Once the hard drive is in the wind and Chastain has called in a friend of hers (Lupita Nyong’o as a former MI6 agent with standard cinematic computer tech skills) to mount an off-the-books retrieval, the film picks up steam. The various country-specific secret agents eventually cross paths as we get a few strong action sequences emphasizing both conventional fisticuffs and subtle spy craft. The second act features terrific pursuit in a crowded market whereby our heroes put those silencers to good use and thus do their thing without alerting the many civilians in their midst. If anything, the film peaks at that sequence, to the point where it has to arbitrary invent reasons for the story to continue onward. This is a deeply episodic picture, which isn’t a deal breaker even if the first half is far superior to the second.
What follows feels less like an organic plot and more a genre-specific checklist of tropes. Yes, the agents have to glam up and sneak into a fancy party to disrupt an auction. Yes, things we believed to be true are revealed to be not quite the case in a way that makes the political stakes more explicitly personal, while amusingly the mysterious MSS agent (Fan Bingbing, initially introduced as a likely villain) is shown to be 100% on the side of the angels. The picture has a nasty moment where the agents face the consequences of their spy games, even while everything is resolved in a pretty conventional (if competently staged) all-out action/violence fest featuring trailer-friendly moments of our leads kicking ass. While the film does leave the door open for a sequel, it’s a self-contained story that comes to a natural conclusion.
Lupita Nyong’o comes off best by virtue of not trying to oversell the “action bad-ass” schtick. Conversely, Chastain and Kruger are trying too hard, while Bingbing is more plot point (and demographic inclusion) than three-dimensional character. Penelope Cruz plays a psychologist inadvertently involved in the chaos, and she’s quite good as the woman with the least interest and the most to lose. The above-noted men are glorified stick figures, which would be fine except the film lacks a compelling villain to enliven the non-action scenes. The $40 million picture is handsomely staged and coherently constructed, even if it lacks any real cinematic razzle-dazzle worthy of its all-star cast. My wife and daughter both lost interest pretty quickly, and I don’t blame them. No spoilers, but it’s not great when plot beats remind you that a comic variation (The Spy Who Dumped Me) did it better.
The 355 is one of those films that’s frustrating not because it’s aggressively bad but because it’s just not particularly good. Yes, I suppose it’s progress that women can have grindhouse action-adventure films just as “fine, whatever” as the men, but that doesn’t help more of these get made, especially at a theatrical level. It’s almost worth seeing just for the actresses alone, and it’s periodically an acting treat beyond the general appeal of watching the likes of Chastain and Cruz play action hero. And, yeah, it goods points for avoiding the tropes that bogged down the likes of Ava, Kate, Proud Mary and Gunpowder Milkshake. Alas, it trades in other tropes (no spoilers) and The Protégé is a much better offering in this specific sub-genre. Even with the fate of theatrical cinema in the balance, The 355 is a “wait for Peacock” flick.