Amidst a decade-plus writing comic book movies (including that of his directorial debut in the disastrous Dark Phoenix), filmmaker Simon Kinberg has also penned such films as This Means War, Jumper, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Sherlock Holmes. While his knack for action formula is well accounted for, he arguably excels better when these stories are original and the characters are less established. His sophomore outing behind the camera with The 355 sees the writer-director outside of the superhero realm for the first time in 10 years, and with much better results than last time.
That’s not to say the film is captivating for its entirety. Leading up to perhaps the most obvious false victory in cinema history, and only 60 minutes in, the paint-by-numbers setup for this action film will surely cause many eyes to roll.
Jessica Chastain plays Mason “Mace” Brown, a CIA officer who goes undercover with partner Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) in order to intercept a powerful device that can access any digital system on Earth and wreak havoc. The job gets compromised quickly when German federal agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger) thinks Mace and Nick are working for the bad guy, Luis Rojas (Édgar Ramírez). Eventually Rojas kills Nick, and the other three parties go their separate ways.
And so, Mace goes rogue, recruiting her estranged friend and tech specialist Khadijah Adiyeme (Lupita Nyong’o) to help track down Marie, who she thinks is working with Rojas. But when all three parties meet back up, Rojas gets killed, leaving behind his handler and friend Graciela Rivera (Penélope Cruz). With the terrorist device now in the hands of yet another criminal, Mace, Khadijah, Marie, and Graciela join forces to stop the end of the world.
I watch a movie like this and realize why certain corny archetypes still exist in action movies: the comic relief, the straight man, the cocky jerk. Yet in The 355, great actors are merely functioning in these very bland, and functional, roles. The film uses certain cliches as a crutch, but other times is radically opposed to letting the innate personalities of those cliches seep in. The result is dry and forgettable…at first.
Fight sequences are rendered inconsequential due to their incoherence and dialogue is riddled with throwaways, with characters saying things like, “I’m done with that life,” or, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Kinberg and co-writer Theresa Rebeck ensure the audience has indeed seen this movie before – or at least leave them with a good impression they have. They probably have.
But the talent is there, and so we can only be so distanced from what’s transpiring. Chastain, Nyong’o, Cruz, and Stan are all very good actors, commanding the screen here even when the movie underneath doesn’t necessarily require them to. Chastain grounds the movie while Nyong’o and Cruz are both asked to show emotion and wit at high levels and both actresses do so swimmingly.
You watch enough of these movies and you start to read them pretty well. You realize a mainstream release like this, with a deep cast and a boilerplate plot, would need something special in order to attract big-name actors and eventually get sold to a studio willing to take a risk putting it in theaters. And so, an experienced moviegoer should be able to sniff out the existence of a big plot twist, or some sort of hook, long before it ever reveals itself. Fortunately, that twist – or series of twists – is a good one.
By the halfway point, with the device already turned into the authorities (why they don’t just destroy the device to begin with is another question entirely), we start to wonder where this story is going next. We’ve just sat through one hour of a mediocre action flick, indifferent, no less. Kinberg isn’t fooling anyone into thinking that this story is wrapped up after 60 minutes. Yet what follows is honestly some of the best action movie plotting I’ve seen in quite a few years.
Where most espionage films bury their Doomsday Devices underneath character drama, The 355 remains curiously hyper-focused on the device itself, promoting it from typical McGuffin to Infinity Stones. Unlike Fast & Furious or James Bond or Marvel fodder, there’s very little to distract from that objective here, for better or worse. So crafty in his ability to balance the mission with his characters, Kinberg rectifies most of the transgressions he commits early on.
But where there’s a tendency to be trite, the trite will always find its way in sooner or later. The overused man-hating cliches almost feel haphazard, like an after-thought that was mandated (get it?). This movie is much better than the public service announcement to which it relegates itself. Although, you can expect just by looking at the Reservoir Dogs-style poster of our heroines lined up that some of those ideas will be itching to reveal themselves.
There’s a scene right after the four women have just turned in the terrorist device, and they’re all sitting around having drinks at a restaurant. They begin exchanging stories about their first agency kills, casually talking and laughing about some of the people they’ve murdered in cold blood, whether or not they deserved it. Curiously void of the cold frankness that would pervade one’s demeanor after a life of killing – even hardening the likes of James Bond himself – the scene plays as words on the page, with emotions conveyed all too flippantly.
Perhaps this is to suggest that female operatives are more honest and open with their sins, thus able to…laugh about them? However, this also downplays the actual emotion that comes with any sympathetic human being killing other human beings. After all, one of this movie’s messages is that no one truly deserves to die.
While it shamelessly villainizes men and is often painfully cliche, The 355 still takes chances with its surprisingly intricate yet dedicatedly straight-forward plot. Unexpected twists get justified and there’s one sequence in particular that’s quite emotionally heavy. We realize that for all the seemingly shallow characters inhabiting this film, we’ve slyly been groomed to care for them.