Daily Archives: January 25, 2022

The 355 (2022)

The most interesting part of The 355 is its inception and the reference of its title, a reveal that doesn’t come to light until the literal final minutes of this clunky two-hour spy thriller. I don’t know why this clarifying detail was withheld so long, as if it was its own spoiler or twist; the title is in reference to a female spy that reported to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, the identity of whom is still a mystery to this day. Maybe co-writer/director Simon Kinberg was afraid explaining this historical spy fact would make the audience envious of the story of Washington’s secret female spy being the movie they watch instead. The other point of interest is that The 355 began when actress/producer Jessica Chastain pitched Kinberg on the set of 2019’s Dark Phoenix to develop a female-lead Mission: Impossible-style spy team. It seems like a no-brainer of a concept, enough so that Universal bought the pitch for $20 million in May 2018, but the question I have is what about the production of Dark Phoenix, the woeful final whimper of the X-Men franchise, made Chastain want to re-saddle with Kinberg as a genre-action director? The 355 is a thoroughly mediocre spy thriller that recycles every trope and cliché imaginable, but this time it’s got a badass gang of women leading the charge. Is that considered genuine progress by most standards?

Mason “Mace” Browne (Chastain) is a secret agent still mourning the loss of her partner/best friend/possible lover (Sebastian Stan) during a mission gone bad in Paris. Her department director has told her, in coded terms, that he has to ground her, but if she went off on her own to seek vengeance, then he would understand. Mace recruits her old pal Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), a retired agent trying to live a normal life as a professor of technology. Together, they butt heads against Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger), a German secret agent targeting Luis Roja (Edgar Ramirez), a Colombian officer who came into possession of a world-destroying device and attempted to sell it to the highest bidder. Graciela (Penelope Cruz) is a psychologist hired by Roja’s agency to bring him back and return the dangerous device. She gets swept up into the mission after becoming the only key to opening the device. She joins Mace, Khadijah, and Marie, along with a Chinese national (the previously incarcerated by the Chinese government Bingbing Fan), to retrieve the device at all costs.

The 355 isn’t the worst movie by far to ever bear the spy thriller label, it’s just so disappointingly rote and predictable, even down to the double-crosses and secret villains. If anyone has watched more than one spy thriller, they will recognize so many familiar elements and settings. Why not throw in a missile silo and factory warehouse that doesn’t seem to produce anything other than sparks? The McGuffin is treated as essentially meaningless, and the fact that it’s a program only on one hard drive would make you think any villain with an iota of sense would at least make a copy. The opening prologue of how the McGuffin got into a Colombian officer’s hands is entirely superfluous. Apparently, the genius son of a Colombian cartel boss has created the world’s most dangerous technological weapon, and nobody seems to think this is worth a conversation. If this kid can develop a super weapon at this age, what more could he do? If I was his morally corrupted father, I would hug the boy, let him know how proud I was, and rather than sell it to the first scuzzy villain who will obviously murder you, I would place my son in a fortified palace nobody knows and tell him to just keep creating technological marvels that could improve the world. All of this is my way of saying the mechanics of how this came into being are unneeded and just another complication. Speaking of complications, if you cannot guess who the surprise villain is going to be immediately, then congratulations, this must be your first spy thriller, and you could do better.

A spy thriller lives and dies depending upon its action set pieces. The reason I have adored the Mission: Impossible films, especially since 2011, have been their eye-popping set pieces, stunt work, and masterful action orchestration. I’m not coming back for the characters. Good action sequences can redeem a fairly rote and predictable story with lackluster characters. Unfortunately, there is nothing on display in The 355 that will make you forgive its flaws. I’m unconvinced that Kinberg has a real feel for how to stage action. He’s written action sequences for decades as a high-concept Hollywood screenwriter but filming them in an exciting manner is another matter entirely. There are foot chases, fist fights, and shootouts galore, but none of them are ever filmed in an exciting or surprising way. Kinberg has adopted the shaky handheld Bourne-style camerawork to juice the sequences but to no avail. There’s one action scene that takes place in the dark broken up by the strobe of gunfire, and it doesn’t feel so much stylish as a quick fix around poor fight choreography. The editing and composition of the action will often deflate the action tension. It’s not in the ADD-drenched Michael Bay realm, but the editing and arrangement just feels so perfunctory. Some moments are even a little embarrassing, like punches that are wildly oversold that needed to be cut around better. It’s no better than what you might get from any run-of-the-mill direct-to-DVD effort, and if your movie cost $70 million and it plays no better than Bruce Willis’ fifth movie of the month, that’s bad. There’s a notable absence of fun like the movie was taken too seriously to be allowed fun.

The “girls can do it too!” vibe of the production is laudable but also feels stagnant and dated, not that we have it our threshold of exciting and capable women in action roles, but that’s its entire reason for being is to take a script and replace [generic male character] with [generic female character]. For some viewers, that might be enough to satisfy their genre cravings, and for some it might even prove empowering, which I assume was Chastain’s intention when developing the project. However, these powerful women feel less like human beings than gender-swapped one-note action staples. They will make quips about women having to clean up the messes men make, but these are no better than the quips in a 1990s action movie trying to earn cheap back-pats for being feminist in the least meaningful ways. The goons in the movie make fun of one another for losing fights to women. I guess in the opening mission, the fact that Mace is running around in a long sundress is meant to break the mold, but I also just kept wondering how much she would have preferred pants. The women of The 355 are routinely defined by their relationship to men. Mace is looking for vengeance because her best friend/lover was killed in the opening mission. Marie is bossed around by a glowering superior who explains, to the benefit of the audience, that she’s “good at everything except taking orders.” Graciela and Khadijah are defined by their familial connections and the one skill they have; one of them is the tech guru, the other is an agency psychologist. The male love interests are threatened, and even seriously harmed, as no more than a means to provide further motivation of Act Three vengeance. It’s bad storytelling when it’s featuring men, and it’s just as bad when it’s featuring women. If the movie was going this route to be satirical or even critical of the treatment of women in these kinds of genre fare, that would be something laudable and interesting. Atomic Blonde went there with gusto and pulled it off. This movie has nothing really to say. Taken together as a whole, it all makes any feminist aims of The 355 feel halfhearted.

There was a way to make this movie better and it was so obvious: making Cruz the lead. Her character is the only one not familiar to the world of spy craft and action, so she would serve as the best entry point for the audience. Why not make her perspective the main one? If the ensemble of characters is an ensemble of one-note stock characters, without personality to engage, then why not limit them further? Why make it an ensemble of bland characters? The character of Graciela has by far the most potential on paper, the woman pulled into a world she doesn’t understand and feels ill-equipped to survive within and then her learning to acclimate. This would have improved the screenplay by giving us more attention on a central character that has more clear vulnerabilities and points of empathy and intrigue. She has a family, she was never intended to be in this life, and she has to adapt quickly or there will be severe consequences. That is far more of an interesting start and arc than watching a group of grim-faced girl boss robots.

Formulaic to a fault, The 355 reminded me of 2017’s The Great Wall, a $150-million Chinese-set action movie directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon. It was a suitable action spectacle but I concluded with this question: “It’s not much better or worse than other empty-headed big-budget action cinema from the Hollywood assembly line, but is that progress? Is making an indistinguishable mediocre B-movie a success story?” That same question hangs over my analysis of The 355. It’s indistinguishable from other bland spy thrillers but this time with a group of lead characters played by women, several of them in their 40s at that. Maybe that’s progress considering the budget and representation, or maybe we can expect more than what we got here, a movie that recycles the same dated and tired tropes but now – with women! The action is middling, the characters are dull, the villain is predictable, and it finds itself in a frustrating middle-ground where it takes itself too seriously but doesn’t have the substantial material to cover. The 355 wastes its fab cast, possible points of intrigue, and proves that tropes without comment or exception are still as boring no matter the gender, race, or identity of those involved.

Nate’s Grade: C

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