Given all the talk around the possibility of the next James Bond being a woman, it’s not surprising to have a major studio release a movie about female super spies. Universal Studios tapped Simon Kinberg to direct and co-write The 355, which stars Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain, Academy Award winners Lupita Nyong’o and Penélope Cruz, and Diane Kruger as a rogue group of international spies who must retrieve a dangerous weapon before it falls into the hands of terrorists. While the premise sounds super Bond-ian and that cast is to die for, it’s disappointing to say this film not only insults its massive potential, but comes across more of a spoof than a legitimate entry into a genre whose bar is already decidedly low, with its cliché-ridden script, painfully unimaginative action sequences and overall ridiculousness.
Chastain plays Mace, a CIA agent who has let a cyber-terrorist’s dream weapon slip out of her grasp, so she must go off the grid to get it back. Because she can’t trust anyone from inside the CIA, she must recruit her old MI-6 friend, Khadijah, played by Nyong’o, who is herself out of the game and working as a professor in London. They are joined by Graciela, played by Cruz, who is a Colombian therapist who just happened to be the courier of the aforementioned cyber weapon before it was hijacked. Graciela is not a spy, nor does she even have a clue what she’s doing there, but her friend linked an electronic tracker on the weapon to her before he died, so Mace and Khadijah need her. Meanwhile, while Mace is building her team, a German intelligence agent, Marie Schmidt, played by Kruger, is following Mace, in hopes of securing the weapon herself. The opening action sequences of the film feature Mace and Marie in a chase through a Paris subway tunnel and an up-close-and-personal fistfight before they both realize they want the same thing: keep the weapon out of the bad guys’ hands. So, of course, the four team up to save the world from total annihilation, but not before a little bonding first!
While it is clearly the intention of The 355 to have its characters considered to be just as strong, tough and equal to other cinematic spy heroes that we’ve seen played by men for nearly a millennium, it’s hard to not notice the overt effort that is made to play up the more emotional elements of these characters, making their personal histories and family life key parts of the story. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, pandering to elements of traditional femininity does end up stunting the overall effect of the escapist entertainment that this genre thrives on. We don’t look to James Bond to be a pillar of moral rectitude and familial obligations, why expect that of a cinematic peer just because she is a woman?
Yes, it is fair to continually compare The 355 to James Bond because it’s clear its filmmakers were incredibly desperate to emulate Bond films. And Mission: Impossible films. And every other successful spy movie ever made. The problem is, that’s that only thing it does. The 355 is not another spy movie, it’s every spy movie. It manages to splice together every possible spy movie cliché and trope into its two-hour running time, including but not limited to a preposterous plot, absolutely unrealistic action sequences, gadgets, a manufactured reason for the beautiful stars to get dressed up in fancy clothes, a scenery-chewing, moustache-twirling villain and hundreds of bullets flying around that only ever seem to hit the bad guys. And that’s not even the worst part.
The worst part of The 355 is its total lack of style. Kinberg, whose only other directing credit is X-Men: Dark Phoenix, shows a complete lack of courage, shooting everything with straightforward, bland visuals and creating paint-by-numbers action sequences. The score by Junkie XL is noticeably distracting and tedious, and the costumes by Stephanie Collie are so on-the-nose that you can’t help but laugh out loud when Chastain’s character shows up at a bazaar in Morocco literally dressed like a female Indiana Jones.
It’s hard to not laugh out loud at some of the cheesy dialogue as well, as lines like “Because we’re spies, asshole” only enhance its spoof-like qualities. If only it were a spoof. The film is so ridiculous and rips off so many ideas, scenes and sequences from other films, it certainly would make it easier to understand.
Its frustrating inability to deliver anything remotely sensical or original is all the more confounding when you see the effort turned in by the four main actresses. Where the rest of the movie falls short, Chastain, Nyong’o, Cruz and Kruger (and Fan Bingbing, who arrives late in the movie as a Chinese spy, natch) truly step up and do all they can to salvage whatever is worthwhile in this film. And certainly what is worthwhile are the performances they turn in, especially Kruger, who is the most comfortable in her character. Chastain, who also co-produced the film, meanders a bit, unable to connect fully with her character, but she commits fully, as does Cruz, who has some nice comic moments that are sorely needed. It is difficult to ever not make full use of Lupita Nyong’o, but she’s not given much room to roam here, even though she makes the most of what she’s given to work with.
If you can overlook the hilariously preposterous action sequences, the spy movie cliches, the convoluted plot, the generic style and the slightly sexist characterizations, there may be something to seek out in The 355’s portrayal of not just one, but four kick-ass female protagonists by talented actresses who work hard to deliver two hours of escapist entertainment. If you can ignore the movie that’s around them, Chastain, Cruz, Nyong’o and Kruger just may make it worth your while. It may not be the next great female spy movie, but it’s a start.
The 355 is now only in theaters from Universal Pictures.