A spy thriller that combines great action sequences with an engaging story, exotic locations, and attractive protagonists? What’s not to love with the new action film “The 355”? Well, almost everything, unfortunately. The story revolves around what we in the film biz would call a Macguffin: A secret weapon that is incredibly disruptive and must be retrieved by the good guys. But who are the good guys? The Central Intelligence Agency, as represented by CIA agent Mace Brown (Jessica Chastain)? German agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger)? English MI6 computer expert Khadijah (Lupito Nyong’o)? Or perhaps it’s the fish not-quite-out-of-water Columbian psychologist Graciela Rivera (Penélope Cruz) who represents the powers of good in this wanna-be complex thriller?
Actually, maybe it’s the handsome and mysterious Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) who the women can trust as they travel from venue to venue in that time-tested narrative approach to spy thrillers? Oh, there’s one more tough action woman in the cast too, Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan), who only appears in the last portion of the movie but is ostensibly one of “the 355” too. You know where the name comes from, right? No? Neither does almost anyone else: 355 was the secret code name for the first female spy during the American Revolution.
There’s no question, this is a beautifully filmed and competent production, with Simon Kinberg (Dark Phoenix) directing and Tim Maurice-Jones (Kick-Ass, The Woman in Black, Bastille Day) as director of photography, but there’s no point to this movie. At no point do we engage with any of the characters, and by about halfway it becomes obvious that all the male characters are untrustworthy while all the female characters are being exploited and find redemption by shunning their respective agencies and joining forces. No kidding, not one female character, even peripheral to the story, is harmed in the narrative, but male characters die at a steady clip.
The performances are bland, with no actual tension or peril, and the story itself only barely holds together under even the most casual scrutiny. There are some good aspects, however: The action sequences are well-choreographed, the exotic locations – Paris, Morocco, Shanghai – are, well, exotic, and the film barely slows down for any exposition. I’m all for flipping gender clichés and having fresh new variations of common cinematic tropes, but only if the new story is fun and interesting too. Ultimately, that’s the problem with The 355: It’s not only a bizarre name, it’s a bizarre film that brings nothing new to the genre. Skip it and watch Ocean’s 8 instead, a surprisingly similar film. Just better.