The 355 premieres in theaters on Friday, Jan. 7.
Born of an idea star Jessica Chastain had while working with director Simon Kinberg on X-Men: Dark Phoenix about an all-female Mission: Impossible-style espionage team, The 355 starts off with decent energy and good intentions, but then devolves into a mess of sluggish clichés, predictable twists, and obvious arcs. And also, possibly, a (pandemic-necessitated?) green-screened Bingbing Fan. More on that later, though…
As an origin tale that clumsily lobbies for further adventures, The 355 brings together badass spies (and one psychologist) from different countries for a global squad of butt-kickers, at first all at cross-purposes, scrambling to get their hands on a dangerous piece of tech that can be weaponized to target anything that's online. For a while, mostly during the first act, the action pieces and chase sequences dazzle, enough to distract from the thin characters and emaciated dialogue. But somewhere around the movie's middle the story loses steam and the actual combining of these warriors into a functioning unit never quite rises to the occasion.
In their various ways, each of the four heroes (plus, the third act addition of the aforementioned Fan) is at a different state of their spy career. Some have no experience while others are too far gone in the game, distant and distrustful of everyone. Chastain's Mace, the CIA agent here, is just a few shades greener than Diane Kruger's German agent, Marie, as Mace still harbors hope for love, despite being burned before. Together, though, they're similarly driven and stubborn enough to be enemies at first.
The core cast — of Chastain, Kruger (replacing Marion Cotillard, who can still be spotted in early publicity shoots), Lupita Nyong'o, and Penélope Cruz — is solid, and Chastain makes for a stalwart, default Danny Ocean-type leader (right down to her weakness), but none of them are able to quite overcome the story's lack of wit and paucity of heart. If The 355 had few more moments of levity, or if it maybe made more of an attempt to rise above the absolute basics of the genre, the fact that each character is only given their "one thing" to care about would be easier to overlook.
From Paris to London to Morocco, the ladies' mission traverses the world, with each spot necessitating different types of tactics. Some require guns a' blazing while others call for formal wear and flirting. Chastain and Kruger get the most hand-to-hand action, and both shine as formidable fighters during strong stunt sequences, but the standout of the squad is Nyong'o, whose MI6 "gal in the chair" nicely shifts from cyber-scouring assistant to lethal field agent.
Cruz's character, sadly, feels like the most wasted element here, as the one woman in the bunch with no combat training. Not only does The 355 not take enough comedic advantage of her being the fish out of water, but the premise is hammered home so much that you expect the twist to be that she's actually a violent agent hiding her abilities. But that swerve never happens, which is a pity because it would have been the only fun twist in the entire story. And sticking with that, as the film heads into its endgame, it seems to lose most of its interest in what it started.
Sure, a lot of movies crumble at the finish, but The 355, particularly, seems to rush through a lot so it can wrap things up and spread its franchise wings. Not that what we're given as a villain is all that exciting, but everything here, past the midway point, is just treated like a stepping stone to get the characters into future installments.
Sebastian Stan and Édgar Ramírez round out the cast, playing their rather rote roles admirably. The best that can be said for them is that they feel way more vital to the film than Chinese star Bingbing Fan, who's not only a late addition to the story, but also seems like she filmed little to no scenes with the rest of the cast. And if she wasn't green-screened into the film (which it looks like), the staging sure makes it look like she was, which just from a blocking standpoint, makes this ensemble feel pretty uncoordinated.