Built around a female-led ensemble, Simon Kinberg’s The 355 has all the hallmarks of a slick espionage thriller — an impressive cast of award-winning actors and the return of Kinberg to the spy genre for the first time since writing Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Hot on the heels of women-driven films like Widows, Birds Of Prey, and Gunpowder Milkshake, The 355 is seemingly designed to showcase that women can be just as good as men, if not better. However, the end result feels like a faux feminist message that rings hollow.
In good ole spy-thriller fashion, there’s a deadly secret weapon – a hard drive capable of hacking into and controlling any computer system. Hardened CIA ‘wild-card’ Mace (Jessica Chastain) must purchase the device with her partner (and sometimes lover) Nick (Sebastian Stan). But the Americans aren’t the only ones who want it — lone German agent Marie (Diane Kruger), and fieldwork newbie Colombian DNI psychologist Graciela (Penélope Cruz), each must acquire the gizmo for their respective governments. When the job goes sideways, Mace teams up with Marie, Graciela and former MI6 cyber expert Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) to recover the mechanism when they discover it’s in the hands of a cartoonishly evil and very one-dimensional arms dealer (Jason Flemyng).
With its all-star cast, The 355 should work — but the story never rises above mediocrity. The characters’ development never transcends the archetypes. Following the ‘tough girl’ trope, Mace never evolves beyond her hard-boiled exterior failing to exhibit anything more than constant anger, even during her darkest moments. Marie is no different; the reckless agent is never given the opportunity to fully explore her surprisingly interesting backstory. Cyber expert and skilled fighter Khadijah had seemingly important reasons for leaving MI6 which are briefly mentioned — but quickly brushed aside.
As the team’s only inexperienced field agent, an anxious Graciela gets a moment to shine near the end, proving her growth as an operative. Though all the characters keep their guard up, Khajidah and Graciela are the only two with some emotional weight; the only ones who have families waiting for them at home and something to lose.
It doesn’t help that the tone of the script, co-written by Kinberg and Theresa Rebeck, feels off. There is this false sense of female empowerment when we see women united with guns blazing and punches throwing, because the writers have given the characters no depth beyond the idea that they can be just as tough as men.
As for the action, though it is entertaining to watch the female-led ensemble taking down droves of men through brute force and gunfire, the fights and chase scenes lack originality and spark. Only in the third act does the action actually get interesting, with the appearance of Fan Bingbing’s Chinese agent Lin Mi Sheng — mesmerizing to watch as she fights using only a lamp post. It’s unfortunate and, simply, a waste that she only appears near the end of the film.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, some unexpected surprises keep you vaguely interested. Without spoiling said scenes, there are consequences to the characters’ actions and no-one is safe, providing some tension and shock value. Still, it can’t save The 355 from shallow characters and a by-the-numbers storyline.
Filled with one-dimensional heroes, predictable double-crosses and been-there-done-that action sequences, The 355 does not bring out the full potential of its stellar cast. Unfortunately, the oddly successful plot twist and the appearance of talented Fan Bingbing do not save the film from its superficial elements and lack of substance.
2 out of 5