Okay, you’ve got a quintet of action chicks and you need to save the world. What do you do first?
It depends, of course—save the world from what? After nosing around a bit, you learn that somebody somewhere has a computer drive with an algorithm on it that can bring the planet to a complete stop. Planes will fall from the sky, lights will go out all over the place, and writers of shopworn action-chick movies like The 355 will find their checks suddenly failing to clear.
The movie was apparently a passion project for its star, Jessica Chastain. She wanted to make a globe-girdling, Bourne-style adventure film fronted by women, and why not? It’s a better idea than appropriating an already extant male franchise for some sort of lame “Jane Bond” project. But despite its predictable sojourns in places like Paris and Shanghai and Marrakesh, The 355 has its own problems. (The number, by the way, was the code name for a still-unknown female member of George Washington’s Culper spy ring during the Revolutionary War—a pointless cultural nudge for unknowing viewers.)
The story is snoozingly simple. The action chicks are of course all kickass operatives drawn from the world’s elite intelligence agencies. Chastain’s character, Mace, is CIA. Diane Kruger’s icy blonde Marie comes from the German Federal Intelligence Service, known as the BND. Computer whiz Khadijah, played by Lupita Nyong’o, hails from the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, the MI6. Penélope Cruz’s Graciela is a “skilled psychologist” with the, uh, Colombian Intelligence Directorate. And the mysterious Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing) is…let’s just say she’s Chinese and leave it at that. (The movie was made with significant input from Chinese production companies.)
Not all of these characters succeed in living up to their billings. Khadijah demonstrates her cutting-edge computer expertise by saying things like, “These algorithms are beyond anything I’ve ever seen.” And since it’s clear that Chastain’s Mace is supposed to be a rock of female self-sufficiency (“She works alone, lives alone,” says one of her teammates), it’s a little surprising to see her suddenly start lip-nibbling with her hunky partner Nick (Sebastian Stan), and then, milliseconds later, begin taking off her clothes (to the modest extent that the movie’s PG-13 rating allows).
Most of the film’s shortcomings emanate from its director, Simon Kinberg, a prolific producer and writer whose only previous directorial credit is for the 2019 X-Men: Dark Phoenix, a picture still deeply unloved in the Marvel movie world. Kinberg cowrote the script for The 355 with Theresa Rebeck and Bek Smith, and it’s a graveyard of DOA dialogue: “Trust no one.” “We can do it the easy way or the hard way.” “You were beaten by a bunch of girls.” One intel chief announces his old-school misogyny by telling a woman she has “daddy issues.”
Action movies can get by with so-so dialogue, but the action has to grab you. Kinberg and his cinematographer, Tim Maurice-Jones, don’t bring much flair to the action sequences we see here. The camera never seems to be situated anyplace interesting, and it doesn’t feel like anyone really cared. There’s an elaborate battle in a fish market, shot from the most uninventive vantages, that is dull nearly to the point of indifference.
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