One could describe The 355 as an action thriller with an all-star cast, and that would be true. But a more simple way to describe The 355 is that it’s every spy thriller flipped so that the old tropes feel new. Name any twist or trick you’ve seen via misdirection, switching sides, or tenuous allyship while in the foxhole and The 355 has it. This doesn’t mean that the film isn’t entertaining, it’s that just when you think that the film is going to take some real chances, it falls back on what audiences know. It’s a crowd-pleaser, for sure, the kind of comfort cinema one might put on at home, with popcorn, snacks, and drinks at the ready, or to enjoy in the theater, a respite from the self-seriousness of winter’s many awards-seeking films. So if you’re willing to forgive it for its failings, you’ll be able to have as much of a good time watching this cast at work as they clearly had making it.
When an arms-deal goes wrong and a deadly device ends up out in the open, CIA operative Mason “Mace” Browne (Jessica Chastain) and her partner Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) put an operation in motion to make contact with the man who has it, Colombian officer Luis Rojas (Édgar Ramírez). All is going to plan until outside forces block the deal from going down, creating a situation in which Mason must work with a group of fellow spies from rival agencies in order to ensure the device doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.
The script, based on a story by Theresa Rebeck (Catwoman) and co-written by director Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Dark Phoenix), is as straight-forward as it gets and you never really feel any lag as the story jumps from one global location to another so that the threats truly do feel large. More often than not, in your Mission: Impossible or 007 stories, the locales stick to European locations unless someone needs a dressing down (literally or figuratively). This often makes the adventures feels less dangerous for American audiences, but as the script’s MacGuffin (a technological device that can hack anything) requires no specific location for use, there’s an opportunity to skip around the world. This not only creates opportunities to use local spots, like London’s Tilbury Docks, for action sequences, but offers a fairly natural way for each of the characters to be introduced where organic relationships didn’t already exist between characters. If not for the abundant exposition making plain peoples’ relationships (telling versus showing) and the over-explanation for why something is the way it is (possibly trying to prevent audiences from assuming plot holes), the script is fairly tight and at least attempts some expectation-flipping surprises despite the too-frequent “no body, no death” trope at play throughout.
The big problem with The 355 is that, despite the great things going on, it waffles between being a pretty engaging, smartly-designed, weighted narrative and the kind of straight-to-home release entertainment one expects to see Bruce Willis pop up in. It’s this oscillation which makes the film both fun and *frustrating*. The central cast is top notch, led by Chastain (coming off a stellar performance in The Eyes of Tammy Faye), who is joined by Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds), Lupita Nyong’o (Us), Penélope Cruz (Parallel Mothers), and Bingbing Fan (X-Men: Days of Future Past). Each one is given time to shine, showing off skills that demonstrate why they are considered the top agents in their respective agencies, while not losing the very humanity they are seeking to preserve across the globe. Trouble is, while the cast is believable as these asskickers, the way the sequences are shot is so full of shakey cam and fast cuts that each one is more disorientating than amazing. It’s easy to believe that the characters portrayed by Chastain, Kruger, Nyong’o, et. al., can do all that we observe, but it would be nice to see it clearly. One can’t tell if the lack of longer takes or a more still camera is because something is being hidden or if it’s intended to somehow heighten the action. Instead, all we can tell is that no one should piss off these characters (which is fine unto itself), but if an action film doesn’t seem to pull off the action well, what’s the point?
Despite some deep frustrations with what is a missed opportunity, a true slam dunk really, I would watch a follow-up picture. The characters are now established, allowing for the narrative to forgo the perfunctory introductory bits, and just let these women engage with each other as they take on international weapons dealers or any other global threat. There’s great chemistry among the cast and the differences/similarities among the characters are enough to feel like there’s cohesion because of their specialties. If they had a script that could better take advantage of their skillsets without dipping its toes in cultural stereotypes, that’d be nice, too.
In theaters January 7th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official The 355 website.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.