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The 355 Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Girlboss

The film industry has seen many changes since the beginning of the pandemic, but one incontrovertible fact remains: January is still a dumping ground for mediocre film product. Look no further than Simon Kinberg's "The 355," a film that screams "January release date" even louder than it does "half baked idea" and "doomed franchise starter." When it was announced back in 2018, the pedigree of the cast alone suggested this could be a must-see project. An female-centric, ensemble spy-thriller starring Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong'o, Penelope Cruz and Marion Cotillard? What could go wrong?

Well, outside of Cotillard getting swapped out for Diane Kruger, the film is co-written and directed by Simon Kinberg, a wildly successful producer who nonetheless cannot seem to cut it on the page or behind the camera. This is the same man who botched the X-Men's "Dark Phoenix Saga" not once ("X-Men: The Last Stand"), but twice ("Dark Phoenix"). However, his work with Chastain on the second attempt is how he wound up helming this project.

Chastain wanted to put together an all-woman film in the vein of "Mission: Impossible" and the "Bourne" films, and Kinberg, for all his failings as a screenwriter, was by all accounts a professional and supportive presence in the X-franchise when Bryan Singer's toxicity threatened to destroy it from the inside. But as fun as he may be to work with or how shrewd he may be in a producing capacity, "The 355" is a movie that exposes his weaknesses as a storyteller, to the detriment of a killer ensemble doing strong work.

The result is a movie featuring some impressive acting within a boring, poorly shot story that feels more like an overlong television pilot than an action thriller. That's probably why it's out in January.

Do you think Margaret Thatcher had girl power?

While the film's marketing promises an international team-up between operatives from opposing agencies coming together for a common cause, "The 355" takes disastrously long to get to that point. Obviously, if the idea is to have a real ensemble where no one woman sticks out as the full-time lead, it's going to take screen time to invest in each of the core players. But "The 355" takes roughly half its two-hour runtime to become to the movie it's advertised as, and by that point, the only reason the four women feel interesting is because they're played by some of the best working actors in the industry. not because of the writing.

There's Mason Browne (Chastain), a CIA operative in a will-they-or-won't-they friendship with her work bestie Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan). They run afoul of Graciela (Cruz), a DNI psychologist brought into field work to get the film's MacGuffin, a nebulous hard drive full of world-ending "stuff" from Luis (Edgar Ramirez), a colleague on the run with an object everyone wants. There's a variety of other shadowy players and too many shifting allegiances to bother keeping track of.

Without giving too much away, the film borrows from Steve McQueen's "Widows" in subverting who the audience assumes will be the key players, but that brings in the film's two other players, Kruger's Marie, a German spy also on the hunt for the drive, and Nyong'o's Khadijah, an MI-6 tech specialist Mason brings out of retirement. Once the four women get together, set aside their home turf allegiances and focus on acquiring something that could prove destructive for all their countries, the movie briefly comes alive. 

There's a couple of solid set pieces flexing each of their skill sets in concert, providing some of the spycraft intrigue movies like this are always good for. None of it comes close to anything in the Craig Bond era or any of the "M:I" films, but the performers are sharp, and just watching them work together offers a bit of glee. 

But as the twists and turns continue, the story itself feels like a bad first draft, with very little of its developments feeling compelling. If it was just a mediocre movie with an unimpressive script, it would be fine enough — the sort of middling genre exercise saved by an amazing cast that has become commonplace in a market where our best performers have to make blockbuster fare to stay relevant. 

However, "The 355" is lacking something even those underachievers tend to possess...

It's all in the style

"The 355" is one of the ugliest, most visually incoherent entries in the genre in years. One of the biggest reasons people enjoy this sort of action movie is, well, for the action. While there's certainly no shortage of shootouts and hand-to-hand combat, they all just look like hot garbage, as if Kinberg handed the camera to a random passerby who got mixed up within the scenes. At times, it looks like someone chucked a Go Pro into one of those fisticuff dust clouds from a "Tom & Jerry" cartoon, aiming for "kinetic" and landing somewhere around "illegible." 

It's a shame, because all four leading ladies have great physicality, strong presence, and charm to spare. But this is a movie that cost nearly $100 million of Universal's money that looks worse than the average episode of "Burn Notice" used to on the USA Network. Characters welcome, indeed.

It doesn't help that the story feels like a placeholder, but if it was at least well-executed, having the script be so bland would just be a means to an end to some better sequel once all the grunt work of establishing this new concept is out of the way. As it stands, even if there wasn't a bunch of trepidation abound from the Omicron surge, "The 355" is a movie that would struggle theatrically. Hell, it's not even of the calibre of most modern straight-to-VOD releases.

That might be easier to swallow if the cast wasn't so good or if it was made up entirely of ex-MMA fighters and Instagram models just dipping their toes into acting for the first time, not multiple award-winners who just wanted a piece of the genre-thriller pie their male counterparts hang onto so easily in between prestige pictures. 

This is Jessica Chastain's second failed attempt to become a cool movie spy after "Ava," but literally everyone involved in front of the camera deserves another chance at the genre. Let's just hope the next time they make an attempt, they find more effective and talented collaborators behind the camera.