‘The 355’: Jessica Chastain Leads a Stellar Cast of Spies in a Less Than Stellar Caper

There are movies that are clearly meant to be one thing but try too hard at being something else. “The 355” is a spy thriller that has all the makings of a great action comedy. Instead it presents total absurdity and clichés with a straight face. The idea behind the movie is admirable in wanting to showcase female characters without any male saviors, yet the screenplay is no different from your average, clunky gun-toting mess that takes itself too seriously. Jessica Chastain, who is also producing, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz and Diane Kruger are all great actors who chew up the scenery like no one’s business. They are also the kinds of names you need attached to compile the budget for this kind of movie where you blink once and you might miss the point.

The action begins in Colombia, where an anti-narcotics agent played by Edgar Ramírez carries out a raid on a drug lord’s mansion and instead of cocaine he finds one of those ultra-dangerous gadgets terrorists could use to shut down the world’s entire operating systems. Word of it gets back to the CIA, where agent Mace (Chastain) is tasked with meeting with the Colombian in Paris to retrieve the cyber weapon. She’s accompanied by colleague, best friend and sort-of boyfriend Nick (Sebastian Stan). The pick-up is first botched by a German intelligence agent, Marie (Kruger) in a standoff where Nick appears to have been killed. Mace goes rogue to find the device and Nick’s killers but alas, the Colombian also gets whacked. The only person left who can access a phone tracking the weapon is another Colombian, a police therapist, Graciela (Cruz). To save the world Mace forms a team that includes Marie and friend and former MI6 agent, Khadija (Nyong’o). 

From there “The 355” functions as another one of those action movie bucket list entertainments, checking off clichés all the way to the end. Director Simon Kinberg, who directed Chastain in “Dark Phoenix,” the unfortunate last nail in the “X-Men” franchise, has visual flair but never goes beyond throwaway escapism. Viewers who just want to kill a lazy afternoon, have no options and prefer to watch some good actors aim, kick and jump for two hours may find it appealing enough. However, even popcorn distraction works best when done efficiently. There should still be more thought put into the plot and characters. “The 355” doesn’t even tell you what the title means until the last three minutes, with a reference to the American Revolution that has no connection at all to what has just transpired (it’s the code of a still unnamed woman spy who helped oust Benedict Arnold). Much of what amounts to exposition is severely rushed. Consider an early scene where Mace and Nick discuss meeting the Colombian contact and Mace reveals they need to pose as newlyweds. He gets flirty and Mace warns him she sees him as just a friend, because she doesn’t want to ruin their bond. All it takes to get her clothes off is for Nick to say, “I want to try something,” meaning he kisses her and in two seconds her entire stance is switched. Despite the progress made in gender representation, the screenplay by Kinberg and Theresa Rebeck can’t imagine a woman spy would want to just save the world from catastrophe. She needs to pine for a stale, pushy male colleague.

As you can expect, “The 355” packs a lot of the moments we expect from a team spy movie. Mace, Khadija, Marie and Graciela have drinks, go undercover in spots like Morocco, save each other from the clutches of evil-doers, yet never really seem to be having fun within this world. Kinberg’s approach is too deadpan. There’s no humor to action scenes that could be entertainingly absurd, like a showdown in a Moroccan market where Khadija warns Mace she will stand out as the only white woman around, or an auction scene where Graciela is forced to let go of her inhibitions and flirt with a Chechen billionaire. Kinberg already wants us to believe that sweet-faced Chastain is a cold assassin, a role which did not work for her in the slumbering “Ava,” or that spies team up the way you assemble an amateur sports team. While defying the stereotype of male-dominated action movies, there are still stereotypes all around. Graciela, for example, being Latin is of course the only member of the group with a husband and kids she needs to get home to, while being squeamish and needing constant protection. At least Lupita Nyong’o’s character has a boyfriend who cooks and waits dutifully at home. 

Curiously enough, we also don’t learn anything about anyone during this entire movie. Who Mace is, what makes her tick, are mysteries. The lead villain played by Jason Flemyng, whose main goal is to apparently sell the world’s most dangerous weapon, appears at the beginning, briefly after the middle and meets a most unceremonious demise without giving a peep about who he is, what motivates him or why he hates life. At least Graciela gets some backstory sprinkled with lots of Colombian copaganda, as she professes to being a therapist inspired by the country’s police forces due to their battle against crime. Unaware viewers will be surprised to learn the Colombian police are also routinely accused of brutally suppressing dissent, as seen last year. Diane Kruger also gets a more ludicrous, but detailed backstory involving a father uncovered as a KGB agent during her childhood. 

A movie like “The 355” could be an improvement on derided titles like “Charlie’s Angels,” if only it was given more real grit and style, or if Kinberg wanted to be serious he needed to give this the edge of something in the realm of “Casino Royale.” Why do men always have to enjoy the truly artful attempts at action filmmaking? We get a few moments of brief entertainment with Chastain hanging from the edge of a building or Kruger racing perilously on top of cranes and crates. Take away the stunts and gunplay and you’re left with stale dialogue and uninteresting characters played by very intriguing actors. This cast has kicked butt before and together they definitely could kick even more if the next installment gives them an adventure worthy of their reputations.

The 355” releases Jan. 7 in theaters nationwide.