Traditionally, January has been a kind of cinematic no man’s land. It’s when studios drop films that wouldn’t cut it as Oscar bait or summer blockbusters; the stuff they just want to burn off. However, the last few years have seen January have at least one surprisingly entertaining genre feature in it, such as 2020’s Underwater or 2021’s Shadow in the Cloud. And interestingly enough, both of those featured female protagonists. In 2022, we have The 355, a female-led spy action film that more than fits the same pattern.
The 355 features an international team of top-tier secret agents banding together to stop a technological, world-threatening MacGuffin from getting into The Wrong Hands. There’s Mason (aka “Mace”) from the United States (Jessica Chastain), Khadijah from the UK (Lupita Nyong’o), Marie from Germany (Diane Kruger), Graciela from Colombia (Penélope Cruz), and Lin Mi Sheng from China (Fan Bingbing). There’s fighting, there’s shooting, there’s fancy dress parties, there’s globe-trotting, and it’s mostly a good time despite the best efforts of its writers and director.
Going into the film, there was a lot working against its success, no matter how qualified that success was going to be. First off, its director and co-writer was Simon Kinberg. His last feature, if you’ve possibly forgotten due to trauma-induced amnesia, was Dark Phoenix, the film that killed the X-Men franchise. Then, the film was pushed back a year due to COVID-related delays from January of 2021. Moving a film into January is warning sign enough, but moving it into January from another January is something else altogether.
To be sure, Kinberg’s script (co-written with Theresa Rebeck) doesn’t do the film any favors. The story is more convoluted than it has to be and flourishes more when it focuses on the characters and not the plot. It’s full of every spy-film trope you can think of, its plot twists are telegraphed in the first act, and it seems more concerned with movement than direction. It’s even got a score by genre-stalwart Junkie XL. But truth be told, it’s still a relatively good time despite all of that or possibly because of it.
The 355 is for better or worse a pretty standard spy thriller. None of the set pieces, set-ups, or scenarios would feel out of place in a James Bond or Jason Bourne story. The main difference is that the protagonists wear couture dresses to the obligatory high-roller, black-tie affair instead of tuxedos. Mind you, Kinberg never elevates the film above this; he might deliver solid genre expectations, but he seems incapable of truly exceeding them. He has enough style to make it work but not enough to make it spectacular.
It’s the cast that does all the work here, and all five women do not disappoint. The characters themselves as written aren’t terribly innovative, but each actor brings them to life in different ways. None of them are phoning it in even though they’d have every right to given the film’s pedigree. Only Fan Bingbing fails to make a big impression, but that’s likely due to the fact that she has the least amount of screen time and the biggest language barrier. If anything, she nails the action sequences very well.
That the cast does a great job should not come as a surprise. After all, it includes two Oscar winners (Cruz and Nyong’o) and an Oscar nominee (Chastain). All five women have received multiple acting accolades of some kind over the course of their careers. If anything, the cast is overqualified for a film like this. Penélope Cruz perhaps gives the most dedicated performance of anyone. Unlike the other women, Graciela is not an action girl; she’s a psychologist working for Colombian intelligence who gets roped into things due to her patient being the one who first had the MacGuffin. She’s the most emotional of the five, but she also has the most dynamic and satisfying evolution over the course of the film.
Chastain and Nyong’o are great, but the most purely crowd-pleasing performance has to come from Diane Kruger. Marie is a big ball of lone wolf, hard-ass Daddy issues, but she makes it work so well. She runs through action sequences with ruthless efficiency and has a distinct kind of bad-girl charisma that bounces off her impossibly chiseled cheekbones. At the same time, she’s a sympathetic individual who is clearly processing deep-seated pain through her secret agent activities.
Those activities, to be sure, tend toward the exciting and heart-pounding side of things. Kinberg, for all his faults as a pure storyteller, does know how to set up an action sequence that serves at least a little bit of adrenaline. Maybe it’s me, and I admit to having a distinct bias toward Women Who Kick All The Ass, but there is something just supremely satisfying to see these women tearing through the film with guns blazing and fists flying. Chastain and Kruger seem especially well-suited to the action star life, and they have tremendous chemistry both as characters and as warriors.
Related to that, the film doesn’t go out of its way to make itself a kind of Girl Power Anthem of a film. There is some of that there, but it’s not the main focus. Aside from one of the bad guys reading his flunkies for “getting beat up by a bunch of girls”, the idea that the women are less capable at their jobs because of their gender isn’t a thing. The film itself draws its name from Agent 355, a female spy that worked during the American Revolution, and Mace spells that out to someone in a clumsy bit of dialogue, but that’s about as heavy-handed as it gets.
While discussing the film with my husband after it was done, he said one of the things he disliked about the film was that the MacGuffin involved seemed too absurdly powerful. He couldn’t suspend his disbelief. My response was that what kind of spy film would it be without something like that? And therein lies the film’s essence. Thanks to its beyond-excellent cast, it’s two hours of exciting action sequences and kick-ass characters. But if you stop to think about the story for more than a second, its flaws are all too apparent. This is a film that delivers the package with fire and flair…as long as you don’t mind a few scorch marks or cracks on it when it arrives.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-