Jessica Chastain pitched a women-led spy film in the spirit of Mission: Impossible and James Bond to her Dark Phoenix director Simon Kinberg. From that concept, The 355 was developed with Chastain taking on producing and acting duties, and Kinberg taking on the directing duties. The latter choice would ultimately spell trouble for the trailblazing and ambitious project concocted by Chastain.
The 355 follows Mace, an American CIA agent who is tasked with retrieving the world’s most dangerous gimmick, but also a tech-bro’s greatest hobby, a program that can control anything. Literally, anything and everything can be controlled with this program which would essentially kickstart another World War as it would mean ultimate power. After a mishap retrieving the drive that contains the program puts Mace at odds with the CIA, she goes rogue and teams up with former MI6 agent Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), German BND agent Marie (Diane Kruger), and Colombian DNI psychologist Graciela (Penélope Cruz). At some point, the mysterious Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing) intercepts her mission.
The film is built on the premise that women can go on a globe-trotting adventure like the many men who have dominated the spy-action genre for decades. Chastain’s ambitious drive is very evident throughout the film, most notably in her portrayal of Mace who leans more toward Ethan Hunt than James Bond. But what holds this film back from its full potential, is that The 355 feels like a response to the blatant misogyny in Hollywood and this genre. It is also an amalgamation of tropes and archetypes that work well enough, but ultimately, doesn’t help the film stand out. Narratively, the film is very by the numbers and could easily pass as the plot for any number of spy actioners. However, it is not enough to stand on its own. That being said, a generic script would hardly spell trouble for The 355 if it weren’t for the choice of director.
What films like Mission: Impossible, Jason Bourne, and Casino Royale (2006) have that The 355 lacks, is style. Chastain assembled a cast of some of the greatest actresses in the world, with a sprinkle of this film’s equivalent of Bond women in Edgar Ramirez and Sebastian Stan. This film’s calibre of talent on screen supersedes that of the talent behind the screen. For a project as ambitious as this, that aims to tilt the scales of representation for women in the spy genre, hiring Simon Kinberg seems counterintuitive, especially when women directors are severely underrepresented in this genre. Furthermore, this is Kinberg’s second directorial effort, and it shows. The film is much too sterile and unambitious with its camera movements, and framing that has become the standard on cable television. The scripts and story are solid; unremarkable, but solid and the characters pop largely due to the overwhelming screen presence of the actors playing them. However, none of that feels notable when you can tell the director behind the camera doesn’t really have a distinct style or eye for one.
While the directing and creative process behind the camera leaves a lot to be desired, the film’s saving grace is its goal. The film hosts a group of interesting characters, each of whom could stand as the lead of their own projects if need be. Mace, Khadijah, Marie and Graciela, make a compelling foursome, with Mace and Marie giving off serious enemies-to-lovers vibes that should be explored in later installments of this fledgling spy series. One of the strengths of the script and story (by Theresa Rebeck) is that there is great care in giving each woman her own story. They aren’t all just tools for Mace to use on her mission. They each have personal lives, ambitions and personalities that are only strengthened by their cooperation. It is a very well-cast film (with the exception of Penélope Cruz). The characters and the actress playing them are interesting enough that the ending will leave the impression that this should be a series.
In reference to why Cruz is miscast, it is due to long-held practice of Hollywood casting Spaniards as Latin Americans. It is a muddled game that often yields criticism, because for the most part, individuals like Cruz who hails from Spain, have the benefit of playing many Hispanic/Latinx identities when Latinx actors are left with very few opportunities to play themselves. I do not know what possessed Chastain to suggest that Cruz’s casting was sound because Spanish colonizers can be found in Colombia, but the film would have greatly benefitted from changing Graciela’s country of origin to Spain or simply, not casting Cruz. Understandably, the casting is stacked to better its box office appeal, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of the few high-calibre Colombian actresses working today. The move and the excuse feel insulting. Was Sofia Vergara busy? You know, one of the highest-paid actresses in the world…
All in all, The 355 is a solid foundation for a spy series starring these actresses, and potentially more with the option to expand the team or eliminate some players along the way. The 355 is very much a throwback spy actioner – it plays it safe but lays the groundwork for more daring adventures. For all the criticisms I’ve launched, I should note that I did like the film. Yes, it’s a bit basic, but there is something thrilling about a by-the-number spy action flick that gives us a decent number of fights, dangerous chases, interesting characters, and a badass f-ck you to the misogyny in the final act. This film leans heavily on the “girl-power” nature of its conception, but never to its detriment. And for that, I appreciate the ambition and the effort.
The 355 opens in theatres on January 7