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“The 355” amasses some of the most talented and electrifying actresses in the world, then squanders them in a generic and forgettable action picture.
Jessica Chastain is among them, and she helped shepherd the film from the beginning as one of its producers. It’s easy to see what the appeal is here: A glamorous and globe-trotting spy thriller in which women get to work together, kick ass, and save the day for a change. One of the through-lines in “The 355” is the way in which these characters get out from under the oppression of condescending mansplainers and actually get things done. You don’t have to be a gorgeous secret agent to relate to that dynamic.
And yet that notion is one of so many elements in director and co-writer Simon Kinberg’s film that feel frustratingly half-baked. There’s not much to these women besides a couple of character traits, and the moments when they might reveal something deeper or more substantial about themselves are fleeting. The muscular physicality of the action sequences—the backbone of any film like this—is unsatisfying. Shaky camerawork and quick edits obscure the choreography and effort that went into staging the elaborate chases and fight scenes, making these moments more annoying than exciting.
Even the costume design is a let-down. In Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, and Penelope Cruz, you have four actresses of significant craft and range who also happen to be stunners capable of wearing any kind of wardrobe choice with style and grace. Except for a high-dollar auction in Shanghai, “The 355” misses the opportunity to dress these women in show-stopping ensembles as they travel from city to city, which would have heightened the sense of glittering escapism. As for the film’s fifth star, Bingbing Fan, she’s barely there until the film’s very end, although its marketing would suggest otherwise.
What they’re all after is the blandest of McGuffins in the script from Kinberg (“X-Men: Dark Phoenix”) and longtime TV writer Theresa Rebeck (“NYPD Blue,” “Smash”). It’s a flash drive containing a data key that can wreak havoc with the touch of a few keystrokes: shut down power grids and destabilize financial markets, launch nukes, and send satellites tumbling from the sky. Not that it matters what it does—it’s the thing that sets the plot in motion—but this happens to be a particularly uninspired bad-guy do-hickey. It’s so amorphous, you never truly feel the threat of its potential danger.
At the film’s start, Chastain’s hotheaded CIA operative, Mason “Mace” Brown, and her partner, Nick (Sebastian Stan), pose as newlyweds to meet up in Paris with the Colombian intelligence agent who has the device (an underused Edgar Ramirez). (Chastain and Stan, who previously worked together on “The Martian,” are supposedly best friends who are secretly in love with each other, but they have zero chemistry.) Kruger, as bad-ass German operative Marie, intercepts it instead, leading to one of the movie’s many dizzying action sequences. Mace brings in her reluctant former MI6 pal, the brilliant hacker Khadijah (Nyong’o), to trace its location. But Cruz, as the Colombian psychologist Dr. Graciela Rivera, also gets dragged into the fray; implausibly, she was sent into the field to find Ramirez’s character and bring him home.
Eventually it becomes clear that all of these women must set aside their differences and team up to find the device: "They get this, they start World War III,” Mace says to Khadijah in one of the movie’s many, many examples of clunky exposition. But first, a fistfight between Mace and Marie involving frozen seafood, which isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds. And the moment in which they all stand around, screaming inane dialogue and pointing guns at each other before reaching an uneasy détente, could not be staged or shot more awkwardly.
One of the film’s most egregious sins is the way it wastes Cruz’s formidable presence and ability. She plays the frightened fish out of water, eager to get home to her husband and sons. As if her character’s inclusion weren’t contrived enough, she’s then asked to be cowering and meek, which aren’t exactly her strong suits.
And yet, there are a couple of scenes that indicate how much better “The 355” could have been. At one point, after achieving a victory, they all sit around drinking beer and swapping war stories, and the blossoming camaraderie on display makes you wish there were more of that. The idea of them rejecting their male-dominated agencies, being on their own, and having to rely on each other for survival is also intriguing—like a more violent version of “9 to 5.”
“James Bond never has to deal with real life,” Mace tells Khadijah at one point. “James Bond always ends up alone,” Khadijah responds, in an exchange that inches closer to something resembling real and relatable human experience. Somewhere in here is the seed of the idea that inspired Chastain in the first place: exploring the sacrifices women often make when they choose career over family, and chasing the tantalizing fantasy that we can have it all. But then the insistent, drum-heavy score starts up again, overwhelming everything, and it’s back to the next shootout or explosion.
Now playing in theaters.
Jessica Chastain as Mason 'Mace' Brown
Lupita Nyong'o as Khadijah
Penélope Cruz as Graciela
Diane Kruger as Marie
Fan Bingbing as Lin Mi Sheng
Sebastian Stan as Nick
Emilio Insolera as Hacker
Leo Staar as Grady