As the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin once sang, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” in the all-female spy thriller “The 355” directed by Simon Kinberg (“Dark Phoenix”) featuring an all-star cast led by Jessica Chastain who also serves as a producer on the film. The plot involves a rogue tech device that in the wrong hands could, you guessed it, wreak havoc on the world. It’s up to five operatives from various worldwide intelligence agencies to stop the baddies. Unfortunately, the formula doesn’t work as well as “Ocean’s 8” thanks to the lackluster script (these ladies deserve better) but seeing Chastain and tough-as-steel Diane Kruger go at it leads to a few electrifying moments in this otherwise average film.
If you were hoping for a Fox Force Five adventure, “Kill Bill Vol 1” remains the closest incarnation of Tarantino’s dreamt-up fem-power agents. Okay, that’s a big order to fill. How about giving us a film with super smart and highly skilled female agents that weren’t raised by circus performers? You know, like the women in Daniel Craig’s 007 shadow who usually upstage the British super spy, the latest references being Lashana Lynch’s Nomi and Ana de Armas’ Paloma in “No Time to Die.” Certainly, the cast assembled here, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, alongside Kruger and Chastain, are worthy of the task. Instead, we are treated to a dumbed-down storyline courtesy of Kinberg and screenwriter Theresa Rebeck who dilute the female characters with material that becomes filler between action segments.
The tech at the heart of the film is a data key jump drive that resembles a cell phone which can infiltrate any system in the world giving its possessor the power to blow airplanes out of the sky as a demonstration of its weapon of mass destruction capabilities. Fortunately, we are spared the nerdy inventor subplot as the story remains focused on the weapon’s acquisition as it’s passed around more times than a beanbag in a game of Hot Potato.
Jessica Chastain plays CIA agent Mace Brown, a loose cannon much like her German counterpart agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger), both women are in Paris trying to track down the data key for their respective agencies. Mace is joined by her longtime partner agent Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan), the two go undercover as a newlywed couple on vacation. There’s not much backstory here, but it’s implied that Mace and Nick have worked together for a good while, so the scene where he puts the moves on her is so out of place that it feels counterfeit. How she responds is so unlike her strong character who you can tell is tired of being suppressed by her male counterparts.
Lupita Nyong’o injects vitality into the film as retired MI6 agent-hacking wizard Khadijah Adiyeme, an old friend of Mace who is recruited by her CIA buddy to join the mission to stop the deadly threat. Eventually, they are joined by Graciela Rivera (Penélope Cruz) a psychologist who works for the Columbian intelligence agency, she’s been sent to evaluate operative Luis Rojas (Édgar Ramírez) who is currently in possession of the sought-out data key.
At first, it’s every woman for herself as the various agents compete against each other to acquire the weapon. This leads to entertaining action scenes as Mace and Marie shoot, smackdown, and chase each other all over France. Chastain is tough but she’s no Kruger, the German actress has proved time and again that she has no time for Nazis (“Inglorious Bastards”, “In the Fade”) much less a bunch of rich wannabe villains who are willing to pay half a billion dollars for the data key in a quest for world domination. Is it me, or does that price tag seem low? Sure, that’s a lot of money but it costs Jeff Bezos $2.5 billion just to build a Blue Origins rocket. For that price, I could buy 5 data key weapons. Perhaps, Dr. Evil should show up, pinky in the air, asking for $100 billion dollars!
The female spies eventually band together to save the world with the help of Fan Bingbing as Lin Mi Sheng, the Chinese superstar is sadly underused, and while this all sounds like a terrific fem-power action film, it’s not.
“The 355” gets its name from the unknown female spy who worked for the US during the American Revolution who used the number as her code name. The five ladies here adopt the name for their secret spy organization (Kingswomen?) leading to the possibility of future missions and yes, a sequel.
The action scenes are well-choreographed, the cast is amazing, the climax serves up one shock, but for the most part, the script is ridiculous, sabotaging the film which leads to a big waste of talent. These characters are smarter than they appear on-screen.
Opens today in theaters