One look at “The 355” and it’s hard not to ask a simple question.
Just how woke will it be?
The film stars five actresses in a genre men generally dominate – spy capers. Plus, Hollywood’s obsession with faux female empowerment (Just ask Gina Carano about that topic…) is undeniable.
The good news?
“The 355” keeps the focus on the action where it rightly belongs. It’s formula fare, no doubt, down to the boilerplate dialogue. Plus, veteran action producer-turned-director Simon Kinberg (the “X-Men” franchise) knows this terrain as well as anyone.
Jessica Chastain leads the ensemble cast as Mace, a CIA agent who doesn’t play by the rules. Plus, she has no time for a social life. Talk about breaking, nay shattering, new character ground!
Mace and her partner (Sebastian Stan) are hunting a smart phone-sized device that can overpower, and control, all the world’s tech systems. It’s a Bond-like MacGuffin, but it offers a streamlined narrative for a change.
Find the device. Save the world. Simple, right?
Except double crosses are the norm in the spy game, but Mace has some help along the way. She teams with a German agent, Marie (Diane Kruger), a former ally and computer guru named Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) and the team’s unexpected player, Graciela (Penelope Cruz).
She’s a psychologist in way over her head, but chances are she’ll be a quick study in the spy game.
Was that a spoiler? If it is, you’ve never seen an action movie before.
We also meet Fan Bingbing as Lin Mi Sheng, but to say anything about her character could enter legit spoiler turf.
Kinberg delivers some slick action set pieces early and often. He knows the plot is a bit silly and the twists are equally so. You don’t know who to trust here, another trope “The 355” embraces like a favorite aunt.
“The 355” could spark a drinking game based on all the action movie cliches unfolding before our eyes.
- Don’t trust authority? Drink!
- Don’t follow orders? Drink!
- An agent who loves her job more than any social entanglements? Fill ‘er up!
The screenplays still smuggles in some smart developments and character tics, leavening the action movie blueprint just enough to engage us. The fight scenes do the rest, with the stars delivering enough body blows without veering into caricature.
Our heroes get hurt and bleed. It’s oddly welcome in an era where Vin Diesel walks away from every “Furious” car crash without a scratch.
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The stars bring not one but two Oscars to the party, and each tries to imbue their characters with some depth between the mayhem. Cruz arguably sells her character the best. She’s no super spy but a doting mom trying to help her new, world-weary friends. The film wisely gives her a maternal spark, too, which brings added depth to one harrowing sequence.
It will be interesting to see how critics react to our heroines torturing a suspect for information mid-film. That tactic used to snag TV’s “24” plenty of grief. Will it generate the same outrage now that female action heroes are doing the dirty work?
The story features the expected China pandering, both in character beats and dialogue. That banter devolves into woke-lite moments in the third act.
“We always do that … we think everything’s our fault,” Nyong’o’s character tells Mace. Other sequences find our heroines dabbling in meta chat.
“‘I’m done with that life’ … everyone always says that,” one agents says to another reluctantly returning to the spy fold.
Later, another notes, “James Bond always ends up alone.”
Neither line lands poorly, but it suggests a more wink-wink presentation that never blossoms.
“The 355” is rarely dull, knows exactly what we expect from a genre romp and never talks down to its audience. It’s hardly ripe for franchise status, but as a time-shredding diversion we could do far worse.
HiT or Miss: “The 355” clings to the spy film template with both hands, which is good news for those who like action-adventure fare.