While the premise is intriguing and the stuffed cast is stellar, ultimately, The 355 only manages to be an exorcise in eye-rolling mediocrity.
The action spy thriller starring Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Lupita Nyong’o, and Bingbing Fan is an entertaining bit of fluff that is distracting enough for a mid-winter watch. January has traditionally been a no man’s land of half-baked content. Virtually no blockbusters are released in January. People are too tired, too cold, and too poor after the holidays to go to the theater. The studios’ answer to this is typically to dump movies they don’t expect to do well any other time of the year. Compared to what we usually get, The 355 is good.
Director Simon Kinberg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bek Smith, produced an attractive film. The set pieces are impressive, and the idea is sound. There really was an Agent 355 as part of the Culper Ring during the American Revolution. Agent 355 was the original badass girlboss, pushing boundaries and exceeding expectations. She was a mysterious female spy that, to this day, is unknown. A female-centric action movie is always welcome, but this one is a tad too familiar to be thrilling. Formulaic to a fault, the payoff isn’t as thrilling as it could be.
Female empowerment really came into the forefront about ten years ago in the early ’90s. The “You Go Girl” movement was about strength and possibility. In The 355, it’s just perfunctory and sorely lacking anything fresh. Nevertheless, some elements work. The action scenes are bombastic and energetic, even as they are framed in all the standard spy locations. Middle Eastern bazaars, Paris streets, and slick Shanghai cityscapes are things we have seen before- maybe too many times.
The cast is full of stunning people giving it their all, but nothing comes together as it should. Regardless of how often we are told, there is chemistry between the women; there isn’t any. Nyong’o(Khadijah) delivers the emotional goods even if her physical skills are somewhat wasted. Her backstory as sidelined tech wizard explains some of that, but not nearly enough with how the film plays out. The actress adeptly handled two different versions of herself, giving a chilling performance in Us. In The 355, she isn’t tasked with nearly as much. She makes the most of every moment, though.
Jessica Chastain(Mace) does smart and sexy better than almost anyone working now. Playing a clunkier version of her Zero Dark Thirty character, she spends the majority of the film talking about big picture problems in meaningless jibber-jabber and worrying about her lack of connection. She tries very hard to be a physical presence on camera, but her fight scenes feel too stiff and forced. Kicking ass while wearing stylish clothes and a healed boot is all well and good unless the punches don’t land. Instead of Into The Badlands’ Widow roundhouse kicking in stilettos, Chastain just throws girl punches punctuated by Williams Sisters’ tennis grunts.
Diane Kruger, despite her second billing, fairs better. The National Treasure actress is both tough and vulnerable as German super-spy Marie. Her fight scenes are by far the best, and she somehow makes her tired plot beats less worn out. On the other hand, Penelope Cruz(Graciela) is criminally underused relegated to damsel mascot. Her psychologist turned reluctant spy is a wasted opportunity. Her connection to the story requires Olympic-level mental gymnastics to untangle, and she gets to do almost nothing powerful or important. She is an educated woman that is not even given anything brainy to do beyond throwing her purse after flirting with a billionaire.
A few too many pointed conversations are meant to remind us how hard it is to be a working woman. I get it, I am one, but there are ways of showing it without preaching it. As a result, the entire film felt a little too try hard. It’s almost like this cast which includes multiple Oscar winners knew they were in a dud and decided ahead of time to stick it out anyway. Kinberg is a good writer. His Invasion on Apple TV + is great, and the characters are well written with intricate mysteries. Unfortunately, the 355 has none of the magic he captured there, which is a shame. Unfortunately, this wasted opportunity feels like the way Nick prefers his whiskey, watered down.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.