Jessica Chastain’s spy flick rehashes male-dominated ’80s hot pot action cliches
The 355 squanders a phenomenal cast and the ability to fit a smart performer amidst a pile of silly, showy sets
Five superstars sharing six Oscar nominations (including two wins) between them headline an ultra-glam action package shot across continents, dutifully ticking the boxes for inclusivity and political correctness. What could go wrong? A lot, if you don’t have a story to tell.
Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Lupita Nyong’o and Fan Bingbing would seem like dream stars in a movie that wants to emphasize that sexy badass spy action isn’t necessarily a macho prerogative for James Bond or Jason. Bourne. Chastain and director Simon Kinberg, who also function as producers, brought in playwright-writer and occasional screenwriter Theresa Rebeck to pen the screenplay and also collaborate on the film’s screenplay. Rebeck’s commitment to giving her works a feminist edge has been widely praised.
At a quick glance, The 355 would naturally seem like an interesting experience within the mainstream format. The film attempts to highlight the revamped ground rules of New Hollywood while retaining the swagger of vintage action artists and serving it up with updated tech specs.
Yet, as the five Powerpuff girls spring into action to save the world (what else?), you feel early on that the experience itself is dated. Beneath the pile of silly, gaudy backdrops lies a half-baked, hackneyed story. Ignoring the fact that watching The 355 is like a seance through a rehash of all the potboiler stunt festivals that ’80s male superstars regularly thrived on. Even if you were to talk about Hollywood’s newfound love for female-centric performers, this kind of exercise is doing the movement more harm than good.
The 355 takes the worst cliché that has ever defined “heroism” at male-centric action festivals and uses them to set up a narrative for its phenomenal cast of all-female stars. The sheer waste of talent and possibility becomes all too glaring as the narrative moves on aimlessly.
As a female-centric spy thriller, too, the model seems exhausted. Think charlie’s angels, first on TV in the ’70s, then unimaginatively remade as a big-budget, bloated movie franchise in the 2000s (plus the pointless 2019 reboot). Over the decades, many female stars, including Angeline Jolie (Salt), Scarlett JohanssonBlack Widow), Geena Davis (long kiss good night), Jennifer Lawrence (red sparrow), Naomi Watts (fair game), Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde) and Judi Dench (Jane red) played the alpha spy on the Hollywood screen with aplomb. Kinberg’s new director seems to randomly borrow generic gigs from such hits while setting a caper for its protagonists.
The idea of naming the film The 355 is a nice touch, though. The title refers to a spy during the American Revolution, whose code name was Agent 355 and whose true identity remains unknown to this day. But if the title is impressive, not the film itself.
Kinberg and Rebeck’s script establishes a fairly comprehensive list of character inclusivity. American heroine Mace (Chastain) is a CIA agent who must team up with British girl Khadijah (Nyong’o), a former MI6 agent and computer expert. Their goal is to locate and recover a drive with a decryption program that can access and disable any digital system on the planet (“they get that, they start World War III,” Mace tells Khadijah of a solemn tone, although the line seems far too cheesy for such an impact). “They” are a band of power-hungry evil men, naturally, lying in wait to grab the reader. Mace and Khadijah must team up with a German agent named Marie (Kruger) to avert disaster. For some drama, Mace and Marie’s resentful history stands in the way, though it only takes a pep talk from Khadijah for the two to reconcile. As the poorly imagined and executed stunt and chase exercise begins, a Colombian psychologist named Graciela (Penelope Cruz) becomes involved in the events. The portrait of diversity is completed with the late entry of Lin (Bingbing), a Chinese woman with mysterious motives.
The film struggles to engage from the start and the effect remains the same even after a roughly two-hour runtime has exhausted its barrage of CGI-laden action and uneven shots of suspense. In a narrative that leads nowhere, Tim Maurice-Jones’ cinematography is flashy but visually not striking enough to hold interest. As the action rushes from the streets of Paris to the quaint Moroccan souks and lavish auction houses of Shanghai, the editing (John Gilbert and Lee Smith) is too hasty to make an impact. Technically, while the film looks state-of-the-art, the final product is too dated to be exciting.
It’s a movie that pretends to be smarter than it actually is, that doesn’t grant its viewers much intelligence. Unsurprisingly, the action unfolds through one-dimensional characters, created without investing much thought process. When the main cast isn’t busy rehearsing stunt sequences from a million action movies of yore, they utter cheesy lines you thought disappeared from commercial cinema a long time ago (Chinese agent Lin to his American counterpart Mace: “We put ourselves in danger while the others are not. We all look different, speak differently but we are the same”). In a scenario where actors of the caliber of Cruz , Chastain, Nyong’o, and Kruger struggle to leave a mark despite author-backed footage, the supporting cast (Sebastian Stan, Edgar Ramirez, and Jason Flemyng in particular) naturally get a raw deal. , the only character in the story who gets some kind of arch from likable to loathsome, is too Hollywood cliché to shock.
The presence of men in the story is mainly used to highlight the “real worlds” of the five heroines, as wives, girlfriends and mothers – in short, as women next door with jobs that move away from time to time. These subplots could have added depth to an otherwise pointless movie if fleshed out in a believable way. They end up just as sloppy as the rest of the movie.
The 355 is available from April 15 on BookMyShow Stream
Rating: * * (two stars)
Vinayak Chakravorty is a Delhi-NCR based film critic, columnist and journalist.