When wondering which sub-genre of movie has had a sudden surge in entries, the “female led spy movie” suddenly seems to be everywhere. Joining such movies as Atomic Blonde, Black Widow and whatever latest Nikita rip off Luc Besson is presumably knocking up, he latest entry into this fertile pool of female bad-assery is The 355, a team flick that sees a clutch of disparate agents from various countries unite to achieve the usual world saving shenanigans.
But while the world is certainly ready for more female action heroes, is it ready for more spy related heroes of any gender? With the shocking climax of No Time To Die still ringing in our ears, not to mention Black Widow, The King’s Man and (technically) Red Notice all not even a year old as of writing, is this genre of people lurking in the shadows simply getting far too crowded?
Mason “Mace” Brown is a perfect example of an over dedicated agent in the field. Tough, overly-serious and utterly devoted to the task at hand, she and her best and only friend, continually smirking agent Nick Fowler, set out on a mission to retrieve a insanely advanced decryption programme that can access any system across the globe that’s somehow in the wind after a supposed drug bust in Colombia went wrong.
However, due to the highly spirited efforts of German agent Marie Schmitt – a spy possibly more insanely dedicated than Mace – the op to buy the drive in Paris goes more sideways than an anxious crab and not only do Mace and Marie find themselves in hot water with their respective bosses, but Nick is shot and killed by a mystery assailant.
Instead of choosing self pity as a drinking buddy and getting more hammered than Oliver Reed on his day off, Mace decides to try and get the drive back in a mission that’s very off the books and recruits old buddy and former MI6 operative Khadijah Adiyeme to temporarily ditch her normal life and help her out for old times sake and after yet another run in with Schmitt (the woman has all the quit of a bloody T-1000), Adiyeme proposes an audacious plan. As the three agents (plus panicky, untrained, civilian therapist Graciela Rivera) all want this drive off the streets, why don’t they team up to get the job done; and sure enough, after forging an alliance, they all manage to snare the problematic computer programme and save the future of everything.
Job done right? Don’t be silly, this is a spy film – there’s obviously going to be crosses and double crosses waiting in the wings to muddy the waters for both the cast and the audience; and so this team of lethal spies (and a therapist) along with some plot unraveling help from Chinese agent Lin Mi Sheng, have to risk everything they have in order to make things right.
While The 355 is a mindlessly diverting action romp that gives its leads a decent showcase, the origins of this movie kind of serve up a pretty good metaphor for the experience in general. Essentially a concept Jessica Chastain thought up and discussed to director Simon Kinberg on the set of the massively maligned X-Men: Dark Phoenix, you get the feeling that maybe the actress should have kept the idea to herself until she crossed paths with a better director. It’s not that the movie is particularly bad or unwatchable, it’s just so derivative of virtually ever other spy movie that’s come before it (both male and female led) that you could probably guess all the major twists simply by looking at the cast list.
Speaking of that cast list… Putting Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger and Penelope Cruz in the same film means you could have made a movie about grouting and it still would have been eminently watchable, but the script simply doesn’t live up to their talents even though you can plainly see their relishing firing hefty automatic weapons at faceless goons. Chastain and Kruger essentially play the same character but with different accents in an attempt to have both characters have a mirror image of themselves to ponder and the concept doesn’t have enough screen time beyond a few terse lines of dialogue to have them properly bond while Nyong’o and Cruz actually enjoyably play against stereotypes as level headed tech whizz and a terrified civilian respectively. Rounding out the team is Bingbing Fan who arrives fairly late in proceedings with a nasty case of the Winston Zedmores and whose whole role seems to literally appear during the team’s darkest hour to bail the film out of a plot cul-de-sac and to boost ticket sales in China while all the male characters are so cookie cutter I’m stunned they’re not portrayed by giant gingerbread men…
However, if you like your action thrillers nice and disposable, then there’s a lot here for you. Despite the film continuing to commit the cardinal movie sin of having an experienced field agent turn up wearing heels to a stake out that’s blatantly going to turn into a Bourne-esque foot chase, the action is perky and fast enough and carries just enough weight to feel tangible enough and everyone equits themselves more than admirably, but why is every female action hero now always a spy; surely the whole secret agent thing has stagnated by now with a long succession of glacial operatives who push their emotions down. Where are the more down to earth, bloody, grimy, women actioners? To use a term I actually dislike, why so many “Jane Bonds” – why can we have a “Jane McClane” or a “Jane Rambo”? Where are the off-duty women cops getting dragged into a terrorist plot or a retired female commando going apeshit on a drugs cartel – I only say this because I’m getting a bit tired of seeing the exact same scene where all the main players turn up to a classy shindig, glammed up to the nines and walking shoulder to shoulder in slow motion loke it’s sipposed to be any kind of shock to see that a cast of this magnitude actually scrubs up well – we see these people every other week on the catwalks for effs sake…
The film weirdly seems to have no idea how to end either, with it faffing around with the idea of some sequel to the extent where the film openly weighs up the options of choosing to kill its main bad guy or not while you’re watching it, seemingly going back on its decision more than once.
If it seems like I’m being overly harsh on a throwaway spy film, it’s only because I wanted more out of it and I honestly think the cast deserved much better than another basic team movie from Simon Kinsberg, but while it breaks from convention every now and then (the villain showing the team exactly how far he’s willing to go is refreshingly nasty) it still just means that The 355 is disappointingly just going by the numbers…