“I’m scared,” gasps Penélope Cruz while on a stakeout for a terrorist spy around the start of Act II in Simon Kinberg’s The 355. “That’s good,” replies Diane Kruger. “Only idiots aren’t scared.” Well, if that’s the case, I must be an idiot, because I certainly wasn’t scared at all during this overlong parade of spy movie clichés. Mostly, I was just BORED.
I’ve seen generic action films plenty of times, and it’s amazing to me how after so many decades studios can continue to churn out the same old thing and expect audiences to eat it up without adding anything to the fucking proceedings. Even the most formulaic entries from Marvel and the like will usually give you something new to latch onto, but this is a case where the creators clearly couldn’t be bothered. An amazing cast is utterly wasted in one-note roles, the script is terrible, the action is beyond subpar, and at no point does any of it feel like it has any stakes because of how shoddily it’s presented to us. The closest I came to enjoying the movie was in its more absurd moments when it almost drifts into the same unintentional comedic territory as The Room or The Happening.
After a botched black market deal in Colombia, a low-level intelligence agent (Édgar Ramírez) is in possession of a “master key” drive that can hack any electronic system on the planet remotely (the seller demonstrates its power by making a cargo plane explode… somehow), and has a failsafe in place to self-destruct if anyone tries to duplicate it. So he’s now an international target, but simply wants to sell it to the American CIA in exchange for enough money to disappear with his family and live in safety.
Enter Mason “Mace” Browne (Jessica Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan), two agents who conveniently have a romantic history – because this story is filled to the BRIM with originality – who are tasked with going to Paris to make the exchange. However, the op goes tits up when Marie Schmidt (Kruger) conveniently is in the exact same place trying to procure the drive for her own government. Never mind that Germany and the USA are allies. Never mind that they’d almost certainly collaborate on such a mission to avoid this exact scenario. What’s really important is that Kruger gets in the way, resulting in casualties and the loss of the asset.
After a dressing-down from her superior officers (the calm John Douglas Thompson and the overtly sexist Leo Staar), Mace goes to London to recruit her friend, former MI6 agent Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), a tech expert, to join her in an “off the books” mission to retrieve the drive. Meanwhile, Ramirez is being counseled by Graciela (Cruz), a therapist working for the Colombian government to get him to surrender peacefully. When all sides converge, the body count starts to rise, and the four women must join forces to save the world, eventually with the help of a Chinese agent (Fan Bingbing) posing as a high-level auctioneer in Shanghai selling the drive. Really, she’s mostly just there to get some Chinese box office by making sure that the day can’t technically be saved without the intervention of their government.
None of this is new. Each of the main four women (I don’t even count Fan because she’s only in the third act) fits neatly into a tired spy character stereotype. Mace, so named because it’s what a woman sprays in the face of a threat, is the stock badass who’s smarter than the room until the script calls for her not to be, at which point she becomes naïve beyond measure and dumb as a stump. Schmidt is the loner who trusts nobody because nobody trusts her, with Kruger giving the closest thing to a competent performance. Khadijah is the one who thought she was out until circumstances force her back into the field. Graciela is the bystander who gets roped into the plot against her will, and who has the most to lose because she has a loving family back home.
But it’s not just the character types that are retreads. Just about every action scene is a shakycam seizure that tries to make entry-level stunt work and obvious strength differentials look more dramatic than they really are. Given the sheer number of kills, especially via knife or gun, it’s amazing how bloodless it all is for the sake of a PG-13 rating. When Kruger first intrudes on the proceedings, she magically puts a jacket on in between shots during the chase scene. There are so many horrible, unconvincing wigs that it becomes its own form of hilarity, including in the initial meetup in Paris, where Chastain wears a wig of her own hair color and length over her normal hair for reasons known only to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The triumphant girl boss song that plays over the credits is literally the theme song from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (“Boys Wanna Be Her” by Peaches). The big twist of the main villain’s identity has been done so many times that it was parodied in The Spy Who Dumped Me, and even in that movie the reveal was handled more cinematically.
But worse than anything else is that you can’t take any of it seriously because the overall presentation is so poor. We’re talking about a drive that can allegedly allow its holder to control the entire world’s power grid, yet there’s never a concerted effort to destroy it, and thus the threat. In the climactic fight, it’s shown several times just lying on the floor, well within gunshot range of all of our ostensible heroines, and yet no one takes a shot. Instead they try to find ways to retrieve it for governments they know are corrupt. The continuity errors are off the charts, most noticeably in a scene at the auction where Nyong’o drops down from a ceiling panel, dropping her shoes down first, then herself, then her phone. The next shot is her stepping on the phone with her high heels to destroy it, even though she never put the shoes back on. Similarly, after a lengthy chase in a metro tunnel, Kruger somehow ends up on a train despite an earlier shot showing it to be impossible, but she just speeds away, flipping off Chastain and anyone in the audience who appreciates effort behind a movie’s production values.
And of course, we can’t get through this movie without talking about who the real enemy: the patriarchy. There is only one true misogynist character in the film (Staar) apart from our main villains, but the film never misses an opportunity to pontificate on gender politics even when it’s completely misplaced. The same character who gets so easily duped into sex at one point in the film later acts superior as she mocks her mark about mansplaining that he never did. The big bad guy taunts his underlings when they get beaten “by girls,” which would almost hold weight if half the team wasn’t constantly calling their families to check in before their inevitable brushes with death in a cheap attempt to wring pathos. It’s all empty platitudes, to the point where I had to catch myself from audibly screaming, “Oh fuck you!” at the screen by the end.
But then again, that’s the point of a movie like this. This was clearly created in an attempt to set up a boss ass bitch action franchise (evidenced by the fact that the team never officially names itself, and only references Agent 355 in an ending monologue that contains a sloppy metaphor about George Washington), and I’m even more confident after seeing it in my assessment from this month’s TFINYW that it got dumped into January because Universal knew it had a dud on its hands. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try to get blood from a stone here. So how do you do that? Preemptively try to silence any criticism by tying it to sexism. If you can associate any critique from anyone with a penis attached as them trying to keep women down, you can dupe enough people to get them to fork over money in the name of feminism. Never mind that we’re expected to appreciate these women as the unseen saviors of Earth, even though the movie can’t respect them enough to give half of them last names. Yeah, Khadijah and Graciela don’t have surnames, because Kinberg couldn’t be fussed to give them even that much agency, yet I’m a sexist if I point out any flaws in this steaming dog turd of a movie.
Case in point, this is a literal exchange I had on the way out of the theatre. I stayed until the end of the credits, just in case there was an extra scene (the MCU has conditioned me by this point). By the time it was completely over, there was just me in the back row and two young women in the front row of the stadium seats (the AMC I went to has an entrance aisle separating flat seats in the first four rows from stadium seating going the rest of the way back). As I walked down the stairs toward the exit, they noticed me, and one of them called out to me.
“Did you like the movie?” she asked.
I took a breath, because I wanted to answer honestly but not go on a diatribe. “The kindest word I can say is ‘no.'”
She looked at her friend, then back at me. “Well, I guess it was because it was women kicking ass for once.”
“Yes, that must have been it,” I replied as I rolled my eyes and walked away.
In Universal’s eyes, this is mission accomplished. There’s no way my views are valid. I must just be prejudiced against women. As far as they’re concerned, I’ve been shut down, my opinions dismissed, and they can tell their friends about this awesome new movie about ladies taking names, and it’s even better because it pissed off some dude, probably a loser incel. That’s the only way this dreck will make any money.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What action tropes do you wish would go away? Do you want World War III to happen just so it won’t be a stilted threat line in movies anymore? Let me know!