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There’s ample action but less excitement in The 355, a production launched with great fanfare at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival that Universal is now dropping on the marketplace with minimal fuss. The idea for an espionage thriller led by an ensemble of women was hatched by producer and star Jessica Chastain while serving on the Cannes competition jury the previous year, sparked by the billboards lining the Croisette touting potential blockbusters, mostly fronted by male leads. The impulse to put kickass women in charge for a change is commendable, but the journeyman result suggests the pitfalls of starting with the packaging instead of the storytelling inspiration.
Given the genesis of the project, perhaps the biggest disappointment is that rather than put a woman behind the camera, Chastain recruited Simon Kinberg, whose extensive credits as producer and screenwriter are more impressive than his sole previous directing gig, on the 2019 X-Men franchise entry, Dark Phoenix.
He co-wrote The 355 with playwright Theresa Rebeck, who has a long history with TV cop procedurals, from NYPD Blue to Law & Order: Criminal Intent. But its thinly drawn characters and rote, often logistically unsound plot mechanics make this an unlikely bid to bring distaff energy to Bond and Bourne territory, notwithstanding the optimistic closing scene leaving the door ajar for sequels.
The title is a code-name nod to a real-life female operative who conveyed key information about British troop movements to American generals serving under George Washington in the Revolutionary War. The aim, by extension, is to provide recognition for overlooked women working behind the scenes in all manner of fields. In this case, that’s women who put themselves in danger to protect the rest of the world from it.
An elementary feminist perspective is baked into the material, from the hard-learned lessons of women placing their trust in the wrong men to the short-sighted disdain of a male villain berating his colleague for being outmaneuvered by “a bunch of girls.” But the real backbone of the story is female solidarity — with even women who start out from adversarial positions discovering the benefits of pooling their strengths and resources for a common goal.
That goal involves keeping an advanced technological device out of enemy hands. When a data key that can access and shut down any closed system on the global net is seized by Colombian intelligence officer Luis Rojas (Édgar Ramírez) during a deal that goes awry, he sees an opportunity to set himself up for retirement by selling the cyber weapon to the CIA.
Hotheaded loose cannon Mason “Mace” Browne (Chastain) is dispatched from Langley to Paris with fellow agent Nick (Sebastian Stan), a close friend who went through training with her. Their relationship has been strictly platonic, but since they’re posing as Iowan honeymooners, Nick puts the romantic moves on her. Although Mace doesn’t want to mess up the friendship, her resistance lasts about a minute, which undercuts the main character by putting girlish vulnerability in the way of her professional instincts.
Naturally, the mission doesn’t go as planned. German operative Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger) snatches the bag she believes contains the device and parallel chases ensue, with Nick in pursuit of Luis above ground while Mace hunts down Marie in the Métro tunnels. An unfortunate casualty ups the emotional stakes for Mace, who brings in her former MI6 ally, Khadijah Adiyeme (Lupita Nyong’o), an ace computer hacker who has sworn off spycraft for a quieter life of romantic bliss.
Meanwhile, Colombian psychologist Dr. Graciela Rivera (Penélope Cruz) is sent by her government to bring the rogue Luis back into line and return the cyber weapon to them. But before she can get him out of France, they are set upon by armed thugs working for the most colorless mercenary in recent screen memory (Jason Flemyng). At one point a character notes that unlike the Cold War or the War on Terror, cyber warfare pits them against an invisible enemy. But that doesn’t make the bad guys here any more interesting.
With both Mace and Marie having failed to retrieve the device for their respective intelligence organizations, they are forced to quit beating the bejesus out of each other and team up. Horrified by all the gunfire and violence, Graciela just wants to return home to her precious family. But her fingerprint recognition on a tracking device and the target now on her back oblige her to tag along.
As much as the film advocates for female empowerment, the separation of the characters according to their family and romantic affiliations, or lack of them, seems a tad reductive.
Mace has always been a lone wolf and she meets her match in Marie, whose fiercely solitary nature and reluctance to trust anyone were set in stone when she discovered at age 15 that her father was a double agent working for the Russians. That makes her the meatiest of the characters, and Kruger’s scowling physicality in the role makes her the thriller’s most dynamic presence. All the actresses bring considerable charisma to the film but Rebeck and Kinberg’s script gives them no shading. More humor in the brief bonding moments that punctuate the accelerated action interludes would have gone a long way.
The story jumps from France to Morocco, where the women use the literal cloak of female invisibility to their advantage in a crowded marketplace. But double-crosses and underestimated antagonists mean the device keeps eluding them, eventually turning up in a dark-web auction in Shanghai. The glamorous high-roller art event that fronts that sale allows for a sleek wardrobe change (yay, fight scenes in wigs and heels!) and 007-style gadgetry with jewelry cams. The auction also brings out an enigmatic figure in Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing), who appears to be one step ahead of the women until the explosive climax in a luxury hotel.
Kinberg handles the fast-paced action capably, with muscular camerawork from Tim Maurice-Jones, propulsive scoring from Tom Holkenberg and busy editing from John Gilbert and Lee Smith. The fight choreography isn’t exactly inventive, but it’s serviceable enough, with Chastain, Kruger and Fan, in particular, getting to show off some sharp moves. It’s all quite watchable and not without suspense, but the characters reveal too little emotional depth or complexity to make us care much about either their losses or their hard-fought victories.
By the standards of recent female-driven action like Widows, Wonder Woman, The Old Guard, Black Widow and Birds of Prey — not to mention longtime Asian favorites like The Heroic Trio — The 355 is a pedestrian number.
Production companies: Freckle Films, SK Genre Films, Universal Pictures, FilmNation Entertainment
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, Diane Kruger, Lupita Nyong’o, Édgar Ramírez, Sebastian Stan, Jason Flemyng, Sylvester Groth, John Douglas Thompson, Leo Starr
Director: Simon Kinberg
Screenwriters: Theresa Rebeck, Simon Kinberg; story by Rebeck
Producers: Jessica Chastain, Kelly Carmichael, Simon Kinberg
Executive producers: Richard Hewitt, Esmond Ren, Wang Rui
Director of photography: Tim Maurice-Jones
Production designer: Simon Elliott
Costume designer: Stephanie Collie
Music: Tom Holkenberg
Editors: John Gilbert, Lee Smith
Visual effects supervisor: Keith Devlin
Casting: Avy Kaufman
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival