Where to start with Universal’s female-led action spy movie “The 355,” a staggeringly ill-conceived effort on every level if we’re going to put it lightly and politely. From all accounts, “The 355” was born on the set of “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” (a terrible movie, to be candid), wherein co-star Jessica Chastain said to the film’s writer/director Simon Kinberg (paraphrasing), “why don’t we do an action espionage movie with all-women leads?” Kinberg immediately said yes, and Chastain went into her Rolodex of famous friends and quickly found a star-studded cast to be on board.
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While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the film’s intentions, the enthusiasm and goodwill that yearned the project into existence might be the only good parts about it. Perhaps fittingly, “The 355”—a painfully trivial and cliché film—also feels like it’s spun out of that absolutely cringeworthy and pandering moment in ‘Dark Phoenix’ where Jennifer Lawrence flippantly says, “By the way, the women are always saving the men around here. You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women,” written to elicit rousing girl power cheers, only to receive groaningly deserved eye rolls instead. The entire heavy-handed effort also feels like the equally clumsy and ingratiating “she’s got help” line in “Avengers: Endgame” wherein a bunch of female superheroes band together to stop the movie for a minute and create a splash page trailer moment where the filmmakers demonstrate that yes, girls kick ass too (they sure do, but there’s no need to be insipid about it).
And given how poorly made, poorly written, and poorly crafted “The 355” is —with action that is casually visceral, but actually borderline incompetent and super sloppily staged—the final product reeks of superficial vanity project intended to “let girls be badass” rather than trying to circumvent, better, or elevate the genre (or women for that matter). Which is sad, since it places the film, led by women, in the same league (or worse) as the men they’re trying to painfully convey they’re superior to, yet never manages to communicate this in an even mildly intelligent or convincing way. This is generally what’s described as “GirlBossy”—a gaudy and shallow attempt to demonstrate female competency that often embarrassingly overcompensates and thus fails miserably—and unfortunately fits the bill here.
The plot, such as there is one, just seems contrived to create a formidable dream team that will eventually usurp its male counterparts, rather than, you know, tell an engaging or even marginally interesting story that remotely means anything.
In short, a top-secret weapon falls into mercenary hands (as it’s wont to do), and a coterie of brash, wild cards from different spy agencies around the world have to roll up their sleeves, talk back and get the job done. The American contingent is CIA agent Mason “Mace” Brown (Chastain, also a producer), and she is eventually joined by German agent Marie (Diane Kruger), her Alpha female rival who she butts heads with, computer whiz Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), and a Colombian psychologist Graciela (Penélope Cruz) that is untrained and unqualified for such dangerous action, but is somehow placed into the field to check in on the mental health of another agent (Edgar Ramirez, who helps jumps start the plot; Sebastian Stan also stars as manipulative boycandy). Though it’s clear Cruz didn’t want to simply play a “badass” character without flaws, so they reverse engineered her character to be more helpless and then feebly concocted an unconvincing way to get this type of character into the story (and if you don’t believe me, just read the interviews, where they basically said just that).
While at odds and with only tenuous loyalties formed—all the female spies trying to retrieve the veritable gold medal for their respective countries (Bingbing Fan plays a mysterious Chinese agent who eventually joins the fold)—they finally realize teamwork makes the dreamwork and other facile platitudes that fit this movie to a tee.
Rocketing around from Colombia to Paris to Morocco and then to the opulence of Shanghai, the movie seems so concerned with creating a thrilling, glamorous, and exciting atmosphere of globe-trotting, espionage, action, and hard-charging energy that it never once stops to consider whether it’s actually thrilling or exciting. And the answer is not at all and almost never. In fact, the movie is profoundly tedious and formulaic.
The action is atrocious but so kinetic and wild; it’s clear someone thinks they’re pulling one over on the audience with an abundance of enthusiasm (it’s also hilarious how every action scene’s energy is then pulled like a plug when it crosscuts to a scene where something more mundane occurs). The dialogue is lousy and tin-eared, the characters are all stock, one-dimensional cutouts meant to portray their one mood (bad-ass, also bad-ass, geeky and smart, enigmatic and, with Cruz, overwhelmed). It would be one thing if the film simply overstepped its overwrought girl power-y feminist ideas, but it’s just dreadfully made on nearly every level.
Director Simon Kinberg seems to be a nice enough guy (he co-wrote this screenplay with Theresa Rebeck) and his ability to convince A-level casts (like this one and the cast of ‘Dark Phoenix) is impressive. He’s deeply experienced, produced a lot of great films (“The Martian,” “Deadpool”), and was asked by Lucasfilm to be on their initial “Star Wars” writers room dream team, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But perhaps these two-in-a-row inept, borderline incompetent directorial efforts suggest that this is one skill set he should maybe sit out. Not everyone is successful in every endeavor they attempt, but not understanding the difference between pandering and genuinely earned triumphs does feel like a tone-deaf dealbreaker for a filmmaker.
The most galling part about films like this is they purport to support and elevate feminist empowerment narratives with BIPOC representation, but mostly end up hurting their case and cause with their flimsy orchestration and condescending, ham-fisted messaging.
If “The 355” has anything to say at all (and that’s arguable), it’s about being seen and credited in the world. The movie takes its title from an unknown soldier, an invisible agent in the Revolutionary War who played a pivotal role but was lost to history and credit-hungry men. As a tribute, that also feels like a nice starting place, but no one on this film seems to understand how to gild a metaphor, much less construct one with nuance, grace, or flair. Women have worked tirelessly behind the scenes for centuries and “The 355,” in response, turns an over-lit, white-hot spotlight on them instead, cranking up the music to 11 and screaming “WOMEN!” with throttle-you action scenes for two hours. While the movie’s sentiment’s not wrong, the method is nearly unwatchable. [D]