I hate deceptive trailers. When you watch a trailer, you should get a sense of the movie without it giving anything away or misleading you. If you watch the official trailer for The 355 (linked to this review), you’d be under the impression that the action flick takes its cues from the Ocean’s Eleven series, notably the Sandra Bullock-starring Ocean’s Eight (minus three). Unfortunately, this mess does not even come close to that kind of movie. Instead, the faux spy thriller misuses five actresses in a ridiculous plot that doesn’t fly with anyone who knows the least bit about technology. The 355 can best be summarized as stunts, shootouts and fight sequences in search of a believable plot to wrap around them.
Cowriter/director Simon Kinberg last wrote and directed the somewhat better Dark Phoenix after some years writing and producing films in the X-Men series. Cowriter Theresa Rebeck created the TV show Smash and wrote/directed films Poor Behavior and Trouble. Although you might expect a tighter script from these two, they deliver an uneven outing where you guess a major surprise long before its reveal if you’ve ever seen movies in this genre. Mason “Mace” Browne (Jessica Chastain, recently of The Eyes of Tammy Faye) works as a CIA agent and gets sent to Paris with her partner Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) to exchange cash for a high-tech drive that could cause mass chaos. Things go south when German secret agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger) intercepts the drop. Mace loses Marie after a lengthy chase, and she entreats retired British agent and computer whiz Khadijah Adiyeme (Lupita Nyong’o) to help her track the drive. Their efforts take them to Morocco, where they somehow team up with Marie and loop in Colombian psychologist Graciela Rivera (Penélope Cruz). Much later, the foursome add Chinese agent Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan) after a black-market auction in Shanghai for the drive. Perhaps meant to emulate the James Bond formula of an agent traveling around the world after bad guys and secret weapons, the filmmakers diss that series by having Mace explain that James Bond never had to deal with real life.
Although there are five women on the poster and in the promotion for the film, most of the screen time and action go to Chastain, Kruger and Nyong’o with no equal use of the actresses until much later. They participate in a variety of action sequences and still show off their acting chops every now and then. The reverse is true for Cruz and Fan, who feature more prominently in the final third of the film. Each actress gets her moment in the spotlight. Chastain and Kruger engage in the most combat, while Nyong’o does amazing things with a keyboard instead of her hands or weapons. Cruz provides the comic relief at times, something usually not in her roles. Fan wears an air of mystery as well as her recording eyeglasses. This distaff thriller focuses on the ladies, so the men get short shrift except for Stan and Jason Flemyng. Stan must have wanted a completely different role than Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he got it. You will recognize Flemyng instantly from his many performances; sadly, he has merely a few scenes scattered throughout the movie.
The only scenes that captured my attention were the various times when the music pumped as fast as the on-screen action. The filmmakers earn a check mark in the plus column for setting some of these sequences in real cities like Paris, Marrakesh and Shanghai. My favorite parts take place outdoors with characters running through crowded streets and businesses. Both coordinating and filming such chases with citizens or extras can be a nightmare for a director, yet Kinberg kept things moving and sparingly used close-ups at key moments. A gun battle in a Shanghai high-rise feels like something right out of a Die Hard film. In some cases, the actresses wear high heels, and I don’t believe that they are conducive to the kind of running and kicking going on. You can produce some passable or better stunts, but if the links between them don’t seem right, you’ve just made a bunch of future YouTube clips.
For every punch thrown by one of the lead actresses, the writers threw another one at the heads of the audience members with the silly plot. The device driving the entire story seems impossible and too powerful. A drive can remotely control passenger planes and drop them out of the sky? Such planes aren’t connected to any system that allows remote takeover. This drive will supposedly access all banking, power and security systems around the world and cause chaos with a few button presses. James Bond may have encountered some maniacs with powerful weapons, but this is too far-fetched for even him. A supposed surprise twist might as well have been accompanied by a flashing subtitle earlier on when you would guess the twist. With no surprise, a key moment turns into a dud. I would not have sent the women to Marrakesh where women dressed like them would stand out. Perhaps Berlin would have been better. Clichés abound, including that horrible “drop your gun before I count to some number” thing and a character saying that she needs “more time” to complete a computer task. I don’t care how talented a computer expert might be, immediate access to cameras all over a foreign city and manipulation of video playback doesn’t occur in mere seconds. I could go on, but I’ll end with the biggest insult of all. The title would imply that the team takes their name from a legendary Agent 355, a spy from Revolutionary times, yet they don’t become a five-person team until near the end of the movie and, even worse, Cruz’s character Rivera is not a secret agent at all.
I hope that moviegoers don’t get the implied continuation of these ladies’ stories unless a more sensible plot comes along. You don’t need more tepid spy flicks in a crowded genre. If you feel the urge to watch what a female James Bond movie might look like, there’s always Black Widow. The new movies released in the weeks in January right after the Christmas glut almost always include duds dumped at a time when the focus is on awards season. Usually, these films fall in the horror or action genre. The 411 on The 355 is that it’s DOA.