This review was originally published on 1/12/22.

Even though this review won’t be as in-depth as my usual review-caps, there are still MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for The 355. Consider yourself warned.

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When a movie doesn’t work, sometimes it isn’t easy to put a finger on exactly why – especially when it has all the elements needed to be a huge success. Sad to say, The 355 falls into this category, which really bums me out. The idea of an all-female ensemble of spies is an excellent idea, a refreshing alternative to the James Bond, Mission: Impossible and Jason Bourne flicks. And with such a stellar cast and experienced writer/director at the helm, The 355 should’ve been a slam dunk. But it wasn’t – and I was actually stunned by just how rote, formulaic and lazy the whole thing was story-wise.

Sebastian Stan, Jessica Chastain in The 355

Sebastian Stan, Jessica Chastain in The 355

In fiction/screenwriting terms, there’s this thing called a MacGuffin. In some cases, it can be a person, place, or an event – but usually, a MacGuffin is a thing. With more successful stories, a MacGuffin can have great significance story and/or character-wise (like The One Ring in Lord of the Rings or the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark). But most of the time, the MacGuffin is just a thing that serves no other purpose than to get the story rolling and provide an object for all the characters to chase after.

Spy flicks rely especially hard on MacGuffins, so The 355’s use of one is no big deal. However, what is surprising is how incredibly lame their particular MacGuffin is. It does its job in getting the ball rolling, though, starting with a meeting in Colombia at some miscellaneous cartel mansion, where an equally miscellaneous big bad, Elijah Clark (Jason Flemyng), arrives to buy the MacGuffin, henceforth known only as “the drive.”

Edgar Ramirez, Penelope Cruz in The 355

Édgar Ramirez, Penélope Cruz in The 355

What does it do? Well – pretty much everything. Plug it into your computer and voilà! You can bring down airplanes, shut down entire cities’ power grids, throw the stock market into chaos, destabilize governments, you name it. And exactly how does it do all these things? Well, other than some toss-off technobabble about it being some kind of “master data key,” we never find out. It just is. It just does. It’s magic. That’s all you’re gonna get, so accept it and move on. Okay, fine, whatever, but that’s seriously sloppy writing.

Anyway, before the deal can be finalized, Colombian intelligence agents bust in and shoot the place up. In the ensuing chaos, one of the agents, Luis (Édgar Ramirez), snatches up the magic drive. Then we cut to sometime soon after at CIA headquarters, where we meet our main heroine, Mason “Mace” Browne (Jessica Chastain) and her partner/best bud/potential boyfriend, Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan). Their boss, Agent Marks (John Douglas Thompson), tasks them with the mission to meet Luis in Paris and make a trade, $3 million in exchange for the magic drive.

Of course, the meet doesn’t go as planned. Another player crashes the whole thing and makes off with the magic drive – German intelligence agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger). And to make matters worse, Nick ends up dead. The botched mission gets Mace in trouble with her superiors, but it also spurs her to keep pursuing the magic drive. So with Marks’ unofficial permission, Mace goes rogue.

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Lupita Nyong'o in The 355

Lupita Nyong’o in The 355

Mace’s first stop is London, where she recruits her old friend, Kadijah “Deej” Adiyeme (Lupita Nyong’o). Deej is a former MI-6 agent and all-around tech genius, which every spy flick needs. Deej doesn’t want to get involved, but of course, when she hears about the magic drive and all the horrible things it can do, she reluctantly agrees to help.

Back to the magic drive – it turns out that Marie stole the wrong bag. She ended up with the money instead of the magic drive, which Luis still has. He’s hiding out in some hotel, where Colombian intelligence sends a therapist to bring him in. Yeah, I know – a therapist? Makes no sense to me, either. But said therapist is our next soon-to-be 355 member, Graciela Rivera (Penélope Cruz).

Graciela goes with Luis to recover the drive, with Mace, Deej and Marie on their tail, as well as other miscellaneous bad guys. There’s a big melee in a fish market as all of them fight each other, and Luis ends up fatally shot. But before he dies, he gives Graciela fingerprint access to his phone, which has a tracker on the magic drive and therefore gets her officially involved.

Diane Kruger in The 355

Diane Kruger in The 355

So then things play out to where the heroines end up confronting each other with guns drawn – but of course, they all realize that they need to work together for the greater good. And after that, it’s just one big, long chase during which the magic drive bounces from person to person and country to country. And characters you assumed were good guys turn out to be bad guys, ones who were presumed dead aren’t actually dead (cough, cough, Nick, cough, cough) and so on and so on. It’s all twist, turn, twist, turn – and if you were emotionally invested in the characters, it would give you that edge-of-your-seat thrill. But because there’s so little character development, the twists just feel random and unnecessarily confusing.

Related: Check out our review of Dark Phoenix!

And as for the last 355 member, Chinese intelligence agent Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan), we get a fleeting glimpse of her earlier on but don’t actually meet her until right before the end, when the magic drive goes up for auction in Shanghai. She appears just as the group needs her help, and long story short (and after a lot more fighting), the magic drive gets rightfully destroyed and our heroines make sure the bad guys get theirs in the end. And just like the real 355 (the first American female spy), their names and good deeds will remain unknown – but they’ll come together again should the world need their help.

It’s a shame because The 355 has some moments of brilliance. Like during the fish market chase where Diane Kruger’s Marie puts herself on the end of an extending crane. Very cool. Or the part where the ladies trade war stories over beers in a rare moment of downtime. Or Jessica Chastain’s Mace actually needing time to recover from a particularly brutal fight and bearing some really ugly scars.

Bingbing Fan in The 355

Bingbing Fan in The 355

Or the most brilliant moment, where Sebastian Stan’s Nick finally shows some teeth as a villain, threatening to kill all their loved ones when they won’t give up the drive – and for the most part, delivers on the threat. Not only is it the only moment where there’s palpable tension and an actual sense of peril and terror, but it also shows all the leads’ real, raw emotion underneath their tough exteriors.

It’s a tremendous moment that hints at all The 355 could have been. And even though the flick pays lip service to the leads’ personal lives – all-too-brief scenes here and there with Mace and Nick’s relationship difficulties or Deej’s boyfriend or Graciela and her kids – it’s not enough, and what little they do give you feels hollow somehow.

I will say, though, that if The 355 is given a shot at a sequel – and despite my disappointment, I think the premise is too good not to be given another chance – it should only be if the creatives involved provide as much attention to developing the characters as they do to choreographing the chases and fight scenes. Showing us who these brave women are, just as much as what they can do, is what really matters – and what will turn The 355 into the successful franchise it should be.

 

The 355 poster

 

Directed by:  Simon Kinberg

Written by:  Theresa Rebeck, Simon Kinberg

Release Date:  Jan. 7, 2022

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hr 2 min

Distributor:  Universal Pictures

 

NO TIME TO DIE Spoiler Review

 

 

 

Lorinda Donovan
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