Misguided as female-driven blockbuster and unappealing as actioner, The 355 offers little to chew on.
There is something rather refreshing in the fact that new action flick The 355 boasts a cast of actresses who, between them, have dozens of various film awards and nominations under their belts. On deck are Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penelope Cruz, and Diane Kruger, but instead of going in for some prestige Oscar flick that could potentially require them to flex their dramatic chops, they instead pooled their efforts to appear in a completely disposable, big-budget action flick where guns come first. There’s certainly built-in appeal: few would disagree that it’s high time actresses were afforded an equal opportunity for frivolous, cash-grab blockbusters as their male counterparts. It’s just too bad this quartet — and everyone else involved, really — picked a film this dire, a tale of girl power that rings as false as everything else served up by professional hack Simon Kinberg (last seen putting the final nail in the X-Men coffin with the long-delayed and problem-plagued Dark Phoenix). As has been made painfully clear in the omnipresent trailer that has appeared before every theatrical feature for the past three months, the title The 355 refers to the codename of a female spy who worked during the Revolutionary War. No one knows her real name, a fate that will also likely befall the central protagonists here as they race to stop a plot of world catastrophe straight out of a ‘90s techno thriller.
“Technology: it’s the new drug.” That this line comes courtesy of a film released in 2022 should tell you plenty about The 355‘s quality and temperament, demonstrating just how out of touch this film is with the world we live in, a fact that will repeatedly be made throughout its laborious running time. The technology here specifically refers to an electronic device that contains a program which can hack into any online system on the planet, and as the film opens, a Colombian SWAT member (Édgar Ramírez) has stolen the device during a raid and intends to sell it to the highest bidder. Enter CIA agent Mason Brown (Chastain), who is assigned to obtain the device in a routine exchange but gets more than she bargained for when a German Intelligence agent by the name of Marie (Kruger) gets in the way. Before long, the device is traveling around the world, exchanging hands with various nefarious individuals intent on starting World War III, with Mason in hot pursuit. She eventually teams up with Marie while also bringing in former MI-5 agent and cyber specialist Khadijah (Nyong’o). Cruz is also along for the ride as Graciela, a therapist working for Colombian Intelligence who was sent to bring in Ramirez and the device, but who becomes a valuable asset for reasons far too stupid to get into here. We are also eventually introduced to Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing), who is working undercover for Japanese Intelligence, and — pardon the cynicism — seems to only be around so this film can make some money in key Asian markets, so superfluous is her involvement. And so goes The 355, a movie where every aspect feels market-driven and manufactured.
The entire project likewise reeks of self-congratulation; it almost feels like Kinberg and co-screenwriter Theresa Rebeck are daring individuals to criticize it, as if having a female-lead and diverse cast exempts the film from any baseline of quality. But this actually speaks to The 355‘s biggest flaw: namely, that it’s as hollow a tale of female empowerment as they come, thinking that simply placing a gun in the hands of its protagonists makes them feminist icons. Let us start with the character of Mason, a woman who sleeps with her male co-worker, Nick (Sebastian Stan), in the film’s fourth scene. Fair enough, as the film industry has long been transgressive when it comes to representation of women asserting their sexual agency, but the film proceeds to go to great pains from here to detail how very much in love with Nick Mason is, which is curious messaging at the very least. There’s also the fact that the film constantly characterizes these women as inescapably emotion-driven, to the point that it gets numerous people killed or injured. In fairness, it should be noted that that same quality is used as narrative justification for what fuels them at film’s end to take down the baddies, but again, what rhetoric is this film spinning? The 355 takes stereotypes that have been used for years to keep women down and simply reinforces them, even as Kinberg and co. seem to be under the misguided belief that they are reappropriating them for purposes of empowerment. Graciela solemnly intones to Mason as one point, “You were manipulated by a man. It happens. It’s not your fault,” as if you can practically hear the high-fives being exchanged between the filmmakers. Even on the action front, the film fails miserably, as Kinberg opts for Bourne-era shaky cam and frenetic editing that obscures his protagonists’ balletic ass-kicking. The cast is uniformly committed, but this vacuous fluff is so obviously beneath them. If there’s a silver lining to The 355, it’s that the film is admittedly a bit better than Ava, Chastain’s last attempt at action stardom. But that praise is faint to the point of transparency, and both Chastain and audiences can do much better than The 355.