The 355 review – Jessica Chastain-led action thriller is a disappointing dud

The Oscar nominee leads an impressive cast in a frustratingly rote caper that ends up being as forgettable as its title

While X-Men scribe Simon Kinberg’s junky action thriller chooses not to reveal the meaning behind its truly forgettable title until the end (one of his many bizarre decisions as writer-director), I’m going to start by explaining that The 355 is a reference to Agent 355, one of America’s first female spies, deployed during the late 18th century, real identity forever unknown. Perhaps the reason we find this out so very late is that a mere whiff of this story ends up being far more dramatically enticing than the film it’s inspired, the first big release of the year doubling up as its first big disappointment.

Back in 2017, while in the middle of shooting another ill-advised disaster – the loathed X-Men spin-off Dark Phoenix – Jessica Chastain approached Kinberg about creating a female-led action thriller in the vein of James Bond and Mission: Impossible. By the following summer, the film was presented to buyers at Cannes by Chastain and co-stars, an appealingly commercial package that was unsurprisingly snapped up fast. Almost four years later, after a delayed release as a result of Covid, whatever might have worked on paper fizzles out on screen, a gussied-up pile of schlock that wastes a cast who deserve so much better. Rather than being worthy of the collective might of Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger and Bingbing Fan, it feels like the kind of bottom shelf dross that Bruce Willis and Jesse Metcalfe would sleepwalk through to pay the bills, piles of cash handed over via grubby manilla envelopes.

The derivative, stitched-together plot focuses on an all-powerful piece of tech that can hack into pretty much anything, crashing planes, tanking power grids and creating chaos for whomever its owner wants. Mace (Chastain) is an agent tasked with bringing it in along with her colleague and best friend Nick (Sebastian Stan). But the plan goes awry and Chastain is left as a lone wolf, forced into partnering with agents from around the world to figure out what happened and who is to blame.

It’s every bit as generic as that sounds, with a hapless, first-draft script from Kinberg and playwright Theresa Rebeck that fails to introduce any surprise, suspense or humour, coasting along on its stretched star cast and good intentions. The genre still remains heavily male-skewed of course but simply replacing male action heroes with women and then standing back waiting for applause isn’t quite enough. There’s been a very slow inch toward a tad more equality of late, with recent female-led streaming efforts like The Old Guard, Kate and Gunpowder Milkshake easily putting The 355 in the shade, and so beyond the logline “what if Bond but with women”, there’s not much else brought to the table. The film also can’t decide if it’s skewering the genre or conforming to it. In one scene, Chastain’s character ridicules the lack of reality in a 007 movie – “James Bond never has to deal with real life” – but just a scene later, just after travelling around the world in an unexplained army plane, the on-the-lam women arrive at a gala with new outfits, new wigs and new tech, reality nowhere to be seen.

Films such as The 355 live and die by the quality of their action set pieces and while there’s a propulsive pace to the proceedings, there’s never quite enough genuine excitement. The fight scenes, of which there are many, are shoddily captured despite game performers and so the action has a numbing effect, confusingly choreographed and ultimately rather boring. Chastain, who recently gave one of her finest performances in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, is a bit flat and muted here without any eccentricities to play with and so doesn’t really convince as the charismatic, take-no-prisoners lead inspiring a ragtag bunch of agents to follow her. There’s not much of interest for Nyong’o, Fan and particularly Cruz to chew on and so it’s Kruger who steals it, stepping in for the originally cast Marion Cotillard, doing a lot with very little. No one expects intricate character development with a barebones film such as this but there’s barely an attempt to even differentiate the characters outside of their nationalities, a film about strong women that reduces them to nobodies.

Like the films it aspires to be like, The 355 ends with the promise of more but even without an Omicron-hit box office and a cursed January release, it’s unlikely that audiences would be clamouring for a sequel. There will be worse films to come this year but not many will be quite as hard to remember by the end of it.

  • The 355 is out in US and UK cinemas on 7 January


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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