By Lynn Venhaus
In the international spy game, girls can take a licking and keep on ticking – that’s the calling card of “The 355,” a wildly uneven full-throttle action thriller.
Four women from different countries with spy agency experience join forces to save the world from cyber-catastrophe, the kind that would cause World War III. The action rockets from Columbia to Virginia to Paris to London to Shanghai on this deadly mission, as a mysterious woman tracks their moves.
The concept here is that women can be lethal weapons and front action movies, just like Tom Cruise and Jason Statham. Their task is to outsmart mercenaries up to no good. Cue the propulsive music score by Tom Kolkenborg, aka “Junkie XL,” as we watch chases, shootouts, stick-fighting, and explosions just like a “John Wick” or “Jack Reacher.”
A quartet of top-shelf actresses unite for this rogue mission: two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, in full “Zero Dark Thirty” mode, as fiery CIA agent Mason “Mace” Browne; two Oscar winners, Lupita Nyong’o as crackerjack cyber-sleuth Khadijah, formerly M16, and Penelope Cruz as compassionate Graciela, a psychologist who works with DNI agents in Colombia; and Diane Kruger as cunning German operative Marie Schmidt of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, the foreign intelligence service.
They slip into their roles with ease, and genuinely develop a bond working together in a frantic race against the clock. Their action scenes are quite impressive – as is the editing of Oscar-winner John Gilbert.
The bold and brave mavericks show off sharp skills as they try to prevent a top-secret weapon — a computer drive with a master key — from falling into nefarious hands. They can do everything 007 and other secret agent boys can do while globe-trotting. The movie gets far more interesting when Bingbing Fan, as the mysterious Lin Mi Sheng, is added to their girl power grid. However, Sebastian Stan, as Mace’s CIA partner, is unconvincing.
Like Beyonce sang, girls can run the world – and co-writer-director Simon Kinberg seized upon the idea pitched by Chastain when he directed her in the worst “X-Men” movie sequel ever, “Dark Phoenix.” She wanted to see women get the rock-star action-goddess treatment and is one of the producers here.
“The 355” refers to the codename of an unidentified female spy in the American Revolution. (They tell us this fact far into the film).
Huzzah! Any time girls are shown on equal footing with the guys, it’s a good thing – even if it’s a pedestrian project. Last year’s “Gunpowder Milkshake” comes to mind, and the ruthless aspects of the superior “Widows” in 2018.
The plot is convoluted and often implausible, but the fight scenes are well-choreographed and are entertaining when they have the upper hand and slip out of harm’s way. The movie could have ended at least three different times, so it feels long at 2 hours and 4 minutes.
Comparisons to “Charlie’s Angels” for the 21st century are fair. The women are having such a good time kicking butt and getting names that it’s a shame that the formulaic plot devices slow it down.
Major characters shockingly get killed early, there are betrayals you see coming a mile away, and then of course we have the tough bosses and the clueless co-workers who are making bad assumptions (do these creaky tropes work anymore?).
And the main villain is a weak one — a generic billionaire fueled by greed and power. We don’t ever know much about him, and he is as bland as those stock photos companies put in their frames to entice purchasers. I couldn’t find his name in the credits, that’s the impression he makes.
Kinberg has many producing and writing credits, but as a director, hasn’t exhibited much to get excited about – yet.
Two screenwriters, Theresa Rebeck – Emmy-nominated for TV work, with a long resume including “Law and Order” and “NYPD Blue,” and Bek Smith, joined Kinberg on the script. They pile on the cliches about the women not necessarily enjoying being lone wolves and trust issues. When protecting everyone from danger, it’s tough to have what people regard as a conventional lifestyle. Their pity parties are short-lived, though, because they like being Girl Bosses.
They leave the film open-ended for a sequel, just in case they want to get the band back together. The dream team would need a better script, but seeing them triumph in this long-delayed film is an OK escape during the dreary part of frosty winter.
“The 355” is an action thriller directed by Simon Kinberg. It stars Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, Penelope Cruz, Sebastian Stan, Edgar Ramirez and Bingbing Fan. Rated: PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, brief strong language, and suggestive material, it opens only in theatres on Jan. 7. Lynn’s Grade: C.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.