‘The 355’s Fundamental Flaw

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Photo: Universal Pictures

What would go on to become the first wide theatrical release of 2022 began as a simple idea in the head of actress Jessica Chastain while on the set of “Dark Phoenix”. In between filming her scenes, she pitched the concept of a female-led spy film in the vein of James Bond or Mission: Impossible to director Simon Kindberg. The intention that underlies this premise is self-evident: The action genre has long been dominated by male actors, with women being vastly underrepresented. When women have been prominently featured in action films, they are frequently objectified and relegated to the role of the love interest of a male lead. By making a film where women save that day for a change, Chastain and Kindberg are aiming to create another opportunity for strong female representation in action cinema. Unfortunately, the good intentions behind the concept of the film are ultimately dashed against the rocks of mediocrity. “The 355” is a spy thriller so generic that audiences will likely forget most of its contents shortly after exiting the theater.

 

The film follows a wild card CIA agent who joins forces with three agents from other countries on a globe-trotting mission to retrieve a top secret weapon that has fallen into the hands of mercenaries. As you may have gleaned from that cookie cutter description, the film is your standard spies-gone-rogue fare under the guise of pop feminism. The plot feels less like a series of events set up in order to tell an emotionally enthralling story, and more like the writers checking a series of boxes of the standard elements in an action film. As a result, there’s very little here that you haven’t seen executed far better in a hundred other films. The characters spend much of the runtime pursuing a hard drive that is able to manipulate other pieces of technology: airplanes, nuclear weapons, power grids, etc. But this capability does not affect the plot in any way, so instead the device merely acts as a McGuffin, and an exceptionally bland one at that. In stereotypical fashion, the film also contains a series of screamingly obvious plot twists that you’ll see coming from a mile away.

 

But, there are many other action films that are phenomenal despite having lackluster plots. What truly makes or breaks an action film is the action itself. Regrettably, that’s yet another arena in which the film flails. One of the most important elements in any action scene is geography. Genre enthusiasts practically worship those directors who prioritize establishing and wide shots when constructing action because it makes it clear where the actors are in relation to each other and what they’re doing, letting the audience sit back and witness the scene unfold. This is an essential principle of shooting action sequences that this film frequently disregards. The film instead embraces a post-Bourne style of action that’s defined by frenetic editing and shaky camerawork that often makes it difficult to comprehend what is actually occurring onecreen. This deficiency is exacerbated by the fact that there is not a single vaguely memorable action set piece in the film. The foot chases and shootouts are not entirely without tension, but the sense of suspense is greatly curtailed by the lack of clarity. The film is the only the second directed by longtime X-men writer Simon Kindberg, who has yet to develop any distinctive cinematic sensibilities, resulting in a vaguely competent yet unremarkable visual experience.

 

Chastain assembled a star studded cast for the film, including Penélope Cruz, Bingbing Fan, Diane Kruger, and Lupita Nyong’o. All of these actresses are undoubtedly talented, and deserve to be in a far better film. Despite having the potential of her formidable persona mostly wasted, Cruz nevertheless gives an excellent performance as a fish out of water caught up in this world of international espionage. Nyong’o, Kruger, and even newcomer Binging are moderately engaging as well. However, Chastain gives an oddly mute performance here, especially coming off her career topping portrayal of televangelist Tammy Faye in Fox Searchlight’s latest biopic. And Sebastian Stan, who portrays Chastain’s love interest, actively hinders the film. His line delivery is surprisingly flat in many instances, which undercuts some dramatic moments. By far the biggest stumbling block that the cast experiences is that the characters they’re portraying are crucially underbaked, with only a handful of personality traits and traces of backstory to flesh them out. There is some hand-waving at potentially interesting themes about overcoming male superiority, but these are integrated into the narrative in an incredibly haphazard manner.

 

Importantly, the film fails not in spite of its premise, but in large part because of it. Before the cameras began rolling, before a single actress was cast, the film’s potential for greatness was already severely limited. Well-intentioned though it might have been, “spy film but with women” isn’t a story idea. It’s an aesthetic detail. Furthermore, although the march towards equality has been slow, Hollywood has been investing in more and more female-led action films over the past decade. Chastain herself starred in a spy thriller as recently as last year, making the film’s gender politics far less revolutionary than it believes. Almost all of the female-led action fare released in the past few years are also far better films with far more interesting premises. For instance, 2017’s Wonder Woman follows an Amazonian warrior princess who must leave the island that she has spent her entire life to embark on a quest to end World War I. It’s a female-led film that is built on an intriguing premise that instantly entrances audiences with the story it’s telling. There is no story idea at the heart of “The 355” besides its own misguided belief that making a substandard, derivative spy film with deeply flawed action storytelling would be inherently improved merely by the inclusion of more women.