Just as there is no rest for films arriving in theaters, right after the holidays no less, there is never a moment’s break for the realm of international espionage. Its tests and trials make for evergreen fodder on any size screen. And whilst director Simon Kinberg (the X-Men series) and co-writer Theresa Rebeck (Smash) nimbly push for “largest available” territory in The 355, the action displayed came off equal parts gripping, and a touch exhausting. Because once it starts, it simply doesn’t stop for anything. Not even to hydrate.
What originates as an underground deal in the thick of Colombian jungle exacerbates into a low-key war for global cybersecurity when a shootout forces a hefty hard drive to fall into the wrong hands. Thus prompts blindsided rogue CIA op Mace (Jessica Chastain) and disillusioned partner and will-they-won’t-they fiancé Nick (Sebastian Stan) to respond. Not even a Mr. and Mrs. Smith-esque cover could be enough to save their skins after a first attempt retrieval involving a backpack switcheroo not only botches CIA cadence, but exposes other agencies’ weaknesses in both personnel and protocol as mercenaries take control. Aware of the lingering threat such sensitive data contains, Mace is now forced to go it alone, play the rogue card. Thankfully she won’t be alone, when apparently the only thing powerful than a single individual with name recognition, is a focus on girl power energy.
And that’s what sets The 355 apart from certain other secret agent stories, or most other films landing in the early January neutral zone. Its camaraderie around a balanced ensemble gives both Kinberg and Rebeck the distance necessary to shake up the usual formula. And perhaps be a little sneaky with its surprises, deliberate with its tension. Something editors Lee Smith (1917) and John Gilbert (Adrift) still know how to accomplish, ever so precisely. Just about all the heavy lifting lands squarely on Chastain, and her hapless, under-qualified teammates. All of whom with significant others or families at stake in their unique work, an idea Mace could only dream. There’s working mom/psychologist Graciela (Penelope Cruz), forensics specialist/Mi6 loyalist Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), self-doubting assassin Marie (Diane Kruger), and logistics expert Lin Mi (Bingbing Fan) whose mystery eludes everyone. Apart, their level of experience exceeds typical standards. But their credentials make them no less human, exposed deeply while on a globetrotting adventure covering Paris, London, Berlin, Marrakesh and Shanghai.
Internal character vulnerabilities appear to be a specialty of Rebeck’s, maintaining some grounding without needing to be overly showy or melodramatic. Sense of drama benefits well here, playing on level to serve Chastain’s story thread of a heroic lead unsure of what she wants in life, as evidenced by both her workaholic mindset and her rocky chemistry with the sharp, apace Stan. She is once again at the top of her game, blending a conflicted character arc with fast reflexes. Kruger is a welcome delight, merging dry wit with an identity crisis. Nyong’o and Cruz have an easy time supplanting their physicality with heightened IQ.
Everyone in this cast delivers, perhaps more than needed. But that can’t amount to much if the direction doesn’t match. And it’s too easy to see Kinberg’s acuity in the helmsman’s chair remains painfully skittish. I could not speak for his first directorial effort, 2019’s Dark Phoenix, which on the surface played out as an empty-tank entry in the famed Marvel film franchise. In a manner of compensating, 355’s tank is rather overfilled, by way of hitting the accelerator at max speed, and simply staying put. For all the deep character lore we find, we’re just as treated, or rattled, by an insane breakneck pace that all but disavows whatever goodwill Rebeck’s treatment bubbles up to the surface.
Kinberg is clearly a stronger producer and writer than director, his style working well in grammatical eloquence over keen-eyed tonality. We simply do not have much room to catch our breath in this film, there’s always something going on. Not too many things at once, but a lot of detail to each moving story element. Every moment of high-octane action or dense fight choreography, admirable as it looks from a newfound perspective in giving leading ladies the reins versus a machismo/masculine equivalent, still dilutes its potential and taxes the focus. In Rebeck’s careful, procedural-intensive methodology, there is a rewarding plot to be found, At times, it held my attention, excited, redirected off the path of predictability. That is, until the last 30 or 40 minutes needlessly complicate everything Kinberg was inclined to juggle, and its overwhelming speed wore out its momentum and buoyancy.
Had that pacing been willing enough to tap the brakes a few times, my mood would be more flattering. Because this is still a fun enough adventure, one which Chastain should be proud of having signed her name to as a producer. And one worthy of opening new doors for female-driven action films, given the fanfare it carried before the pandemic pushed its release by a year. Much of that anticipation should still carry over, but not so much Kinberg’s proficiency as a filmmaker, whose focus and nervous energy detracts from the objective. Thus leaves the endeavor that was The 355 (named such as a tip of the cap to female ops doing similar work way back in Revolutionary War times) mild at best, but still worth at least one viewing, under healthy enough circumstances. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
The 355 opens in theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for suggestive material, sequences of strong violence, and brief strong language; 122 minutes.