Runtime: 2 hours 2 minutes
Director: Simon Kinberg
Writers: Theresa Rebeck, Simon Kinberg
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Bingbing Fan, Sebastian Stan
By Valerie Kalfrin
Watching “The 355” is an exercise in wondering what might have been. Named after America’s first female spy, the film assembles an impressive team of talented women, then gives their characters inconsistent intelligence and instincts. It’s as if its creators borrowed bits of what looks cool from other popular espionage films without considering the story, motivations, tone, or how to subvert clichés.
The film reteams two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) with director Simon Kinberg of 2019’s “X-Men: Dark Phoenix.” Chastain, also an executive producer on “The 355,” pitched the idea of a woman-led espionage film, eager to showcase a female ensemble in a serious action movie, not a jokey comedy. Unfortunately, the script by Kinberg and Theresa Rebeck (“Smash”) has the feel of hitting the basic highlights with no depth.
Chastain plays Mason “Mace” Browne, a CIA hothead who while tracking down a gizmo that can’t fall into the wrong hands joins forces with other spies played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“Americanah”), Oscar-winner Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers”), and Diane Kruger (“In the Fade”).
This gadget can access anything on the internet, so evildoers can black out entire cities or crash airplanes—a hideous event in which the film indulges at least twice. Colombian police stumble upon the device during a drug raid, and one officer, Luis (Édgar Ramirez, “Jungle Cruise”), scoops it up to sell to the highest bidder.
CIA handler Larry Marks (John Douglas Thompson, “Mare of Easttown”) sends Mace and agent Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”) to Paris as these bidders to retrieve it. Nick, Mace’s longtime best friend, first brings up Mace’s dedication to her career. With a notable lack of chemistry, the two then discuss their long-held feelings. Three guesses on how that turns out.
Moments later, German agent Marie Schmidt (Kruger) interrupts Luis’s exchange with the CIA. When the whole situation goes south, Marie’s boss (Sylvester Groth, “Dark”) questions her dedication over what Marie calls “daddy issues.”
Mace asks friend and ex-MI6 hacker Khadijah Adiyeme (Nyong’o) to help her find Luis and the device. They intersect with Marie and Graciela Rivera (Cruz), a psychologist from Colombia’s spy agency sent to convince Luis to surrender. Some double-crosses spur the women to work together against a shadowy operative (Jason Flemyng, “Pennyworth”) scheming to get the device. Chinese state security agent Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”) turns up later to grant the women access to a high-end black-market auction where they dress to the nines emulating “Mission: Impossible” and “Ocean’s 8.”
Some action sequences in “The 355” aren’t bad, but the film overall can’t decide on its tone. In some parts, it has the grit of the Jason Bourne films while other scenes take the more lighthearted approach of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. Mace and Marie are capable hand-to-hand fighters; yet the script also has Khadijah supply the women with glitzy jewelry containing cameras and explosives hidden in perfume spritzers. It’s an odd mix.
Far clunkier is how capable the women are one minute and ignorant the next. They’re sharpshooters who can take out a guy on a rooftop from the street below in one scene; yet three of them can’t hit one man in another because the movie would be over too soon.
In one instance, as they trail a man through a marketplace in Morocco, Khadijah stops Mace from following him into a mosque, noting that a white woman can’t possibly blend in—a good point, but Mace is already conspicuous in a white suit and a fedora. At least Mace has the sense to throw on a wig elsewhere. At another point, Khadijah also trails someone at a fish market where her working-class mark easily finds her suspicious, Khadijah being the only woman there dressed in a blazer.
Marie sporadically disguises herself, too, but Kruger’s “screw it” attitude makes the character work. Cruz, whose character is the only one married with children, gets to cry, call home, and cower a lot. The women have several heart-to-hearts about the difficulties of balancing work with a personal life, which drags the pacing while billions of lives are supposedly at stake.
On the plus side, the leads seem to find each other amiable company, especially in a scene where they recall their first kills. Here’s hoping they’re toasting to a much better adventure.