January has a bad wrap when it comes to movie releases, considered by most to be a dumping ground for films that studios or distributors don’t think have a chance. January gave us BELLE (2022), PG: Psycho Goreman (2021), Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself (2021; Hulu), The Song of Names (2020), and The Gentlemen (2020), so there’s an argument against the perception of January as the cinematic trash month. But for each one of these that are awards-worthy, there are just as many that just fall flat. Sadly, this includes the Simon Kinberg-directed/co-written The 355, released in January 2022 and starring Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Lupita Nyong’o (Us), Diane Kruger (Inglorious Basterds), Penélope Cruz (Parallel Mothers), and Bingbing Fan (X-Men: Days of Future Past) as a group of international spies who gather their strengths to prevent a global threat. With this central cast, supporting performances from Sebastian Stan (Fresh) and Édgar Ramirez (Jungle Cruise), and a concept that’s pure popcorn entertainment, it’s devastating that it doesn’t work. That said, The 355 does possess some strong points, all of which can be enjoyed at your leisure now that it’s on home video.
If you’d like to know about The 355 without spoilers, I recommend heading over to the initial theatrical review. Moving forward, there will be spoiler talk.
Columbian officer Luis Rojas (Ramirez) finds himself over his head when he takes advantage of an arms deal gone wrong, snagging a device with the capability of taking over any digital operating system. His plan is to sell it for enough money to care for his family, except a device like that attracts the attention of every major country. U.S. operatives Mason Browne (Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Stan) head to Paris for a meet with Ramirez, but are interrupted by German officer Marie Schmidt (Kruger), requiring Browne and Fowler to split up. Unfortunately, Browne not only loses Schmidt and the package, but Fowler is gunned down. With few options, she contacts a retired colleague to help find the package, former MI6 operative Khadijah Adiyeme (Nyong’o), and, in the process of tracking it down, ends up forced to join forces with Schimdt, and Ramirez’s therapist, Dr. Graciela Rivera (Cruz). With billions of innocent lives on the line, these international intelligence operatives must put their personal needs aside and work together before it’s too late.
If you dug this movie, I mean truly dug this film, good on you. Glad for you. There’s plenty to like, especially given the fantastic chemistry between the cast members. You really got the sense that each of the actors enjoyed what they were doing, working in a space that’s all too frequently dominated by men. With the included bonus features on the home release, totaling more than 30 minutes, audiences are invited to not only get the proof they needed that this cast was having a ball, but also evidence of the complexity that goes into shooting any genre, especially action films. In “Chaos at the City of Dreams,” you get an up-close look at the special effects and stuntwork required for the big shootout between Browne and her team and the resurrected Fowler and his team. With stuntwork so rarely given any kind of spotlight, including those who design and prepare the stunts, getting to see how they pulled off a few moments is particularly interesting. Credit where credit is due, the stunts are based on informing the characters and their arcs as much as possible. One of the best things about The 355 is how the characters, for the most part, were given opportunities to do things that moved them forward as individuals and a good stunt should always be seen as the same opportunity as dialogue. Our motivations define how we move, how we react, how we respond in any given moment, just as much as what or how we speak. Similarly, finding out via both “Chasing Through Paris” and “Action That Hurts” how much the cast actually do regarding their stunts, as well as how some stunts were devised as practically as possible, underscores why most of the stuntwork we see is engaging and entertaining. Though the stunt sequence in Marrakesh has its problems, evidentially one aspect the audience wouldn’t know until now is that the film was not approved to film in that location, requiring them to build the set in England using materials purchased and shipped from Marrakesh. With so much talk of cinematic value put into production design and costuming, this five-plus-minute featurette will have you appreciate just what a production designer can do to create the illusion of truth in-between the action scenes.
The other two remaining bonus features are two deleted scenes bundled into one file and two VFX breakdowns. It’s clear why the deleted scenes were cut even though they’re interesting. The first is nearly six minutes in length and drastically changes the dynamic between Rojas and Rivera, the ripples of which would abruptly shift a lot of what happens in the rest of the film. The second is very brief and just provides an opportunity for Nyong’o’s Adiyeme to do a little more tech work (her specialty). The two VFX breakdowns are a silent walkthrough of various scenes through the film in which we’re guided through the actual on-location shot versus how it was adjusted by the VFX team. These breakdowns are great examples of just how often what we see on the screen has been touched by someone to enhance or improve the scene, even if the shifts are minor, like adding a helicopter in the distance.
If I speak so highly of the bonus features, why is it that I included the film as an example of why January gets a bad wrap? A film can be enjoyed or appreciated for a variety of reasons and still not be good. I’m all for this cast reuniting to tell another story, there’s certainly an opportunity for it by the end of the film, but they should do so with a different director and better script. At multiple points in the film, there’s one trope after another which, with a little tweaking, could’ve worked better for the film as a whole. Take the Fowler/Browne pairing. There are plenty of films where a love interest is sacrificed for the central protagonist. It would’ve been a bold move to kill Stan’s character as early as they do and let that be that. Except they bring him back as opposition leaving Jason Flemyng’s arms dealer Elijah Clarke to be more a figure of menace than an *actual* menace. We didn’t spend enough time with Fowler to have feelings for him one way or the other, so his turning up as a turncoat and repeatedly betraying Browne felt more like a trope mixed with misogyny. There are already plenty of threats in the film, no need to try to make Fowler more than he was, especially when he repeatedly gets bested by Browne and her team. Heck, when the team is captured and interrogated by Fowler for the device, he opts to murder their respective loved ones in order to get them to save the few at the expense of the many. What kind of impact do you think it would’ve had if, instead of Fowler doing the threatening, we see him as a hostage instead? There would’ve been so many ways (including just keeping him dead) that would’ve made better use of the characters, played with the tropes The 355 dabbles in, and offered a more dastardly villain from Clarke. This doesn’t even getting into how Browne tries to justify the American occupation of the Middle East by saying how they knew who they were fighting (in truth, the military was manipulated by the Bush Administration to fight for their own purposes),how a character of Middle Eastern descent is tortured on-screen (talk about tropes), and Bingbing Fan’s Lin Mi Sheng’s big contribution to the group is her martial arts prowess and use of “ancient Chinese medicine.” Seriously? Just how stereotypical is the film trying to be? All of the above, no matter how much fun several moments are, reduce the issues enough not to acknowledge them.
As I said above and in my original review, there’s a solid concept here. The idea of using a multi-ethnic cast, most of whom are from the countries they represent in the film, to play roles of characters coming together to stop a global threat is not only believable, but, in the form of an all-female cast, is highly desirable. Part of the fun of the film is watching this cast engage with each other and, in a sequel, they could do so without all the necessary setup of a first outing. Let’s do it. Let’s get a The 355: Part 2 and allow them to take on the enemy Mission: Impossible-style. Please and thank you.
The 355 Special Features:
- Deleted Scenes (6:21)
- Chasing Through Paris – Cast and filmmakers discuss the first day of shooting on THE 355 and how the choreographed chase sequence through the Parisian arcade set the tone for the entire production. (4:59)
- Action That Hurts – A behind-the-scenes look at the stunts featured in the film’s centerpiece action sequence. (5:28)
- Reconstructing Marrakesh – From footage of construction to a set tour with Production Designer Simon Elliott, we’ll come to understand why the cast was so blown away by the accuracy of the Moroccan set. (5:36)
- Chaos At The City Of Dreams – Cast and filmmakers deconstruct the film’s final set piece, from exploding ceilings to major shoot-outs, to the ultimate show-down fight between Jessica Chastian’s and Sebastian Stan’s characters. (3:52)
- VFX Breakdowns (5:01)
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital February 22nd, 2022.