It sounds like to the setup to a joke: How do you make a movie starring Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, and Diane Kruger into a dud? Through the same phenomenon that brought the world SoulCycle, that’s how. The “girlboss” wave of the mid-2010s celebrated tough-minded, take-no-shit women who grabbed the world by the balls and gave them a twist, presenting a gender-swapped version of liberal capitalism as the solution to that system’s many problems. Universal’s new thriller The 355 believes similarly: In this film, the CIA and its ilk are presented as corrupt dinosaurs—unless it’s a badass chick pulling the strings. Yes, girl! Work that surveillance state!
Released the same week that medical girlboss Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of fraud, the schtick is feeling more than a little tired in The 355. Perhaps the pandemic has made us a little more sensitive to the interconnected nature of all things, making a woman driven by myopic self-interest, whether she be venture capitalist or CIA agent, seem a little less aspirational. Of course, that’s an optimistic view. The truth is that, like any cultural phenomenon, the action-movie version of female empowerment has been worn out through sheer repetition. In a spy thriller, a woman who drinks her whiskey neat—girlbosses never dilute—and kicks men in the face wearing a stacked heel has become as much of a cliché as the womanizing secret agent. And The 355 does nothing to complicate, deconstruct, or refresh that cliché.
Chastain stars as Mason “Mace” Brown, a less conflicted version of her character from Zero Dark Thirty. (At one point, Mace waxes nostalgic about the moral clarity of the Global War on Terrorism. Later on, she tells a funny story about hitting a cow with her car in Pakistan.) At the beginning of the film, Mace fumbles a mission to retrieve a hard drive that can do all the vague, catastrophic things hard drives can do in spy movies. In the ensuing foot chase through the streets of Paris, Mace’s partner Nick (Sebastian Stan) proves himself useless, and Mace chases her opponent, later revealed to be German superspy Marie (Diane Kruger), down into a Metro tunnel for a reasonably thrilling showdown.
But Nick is killed in the aftermath, and a flashback sequence lit like an alien abduction soon reveals that Mace’s feelings for her colleague were more than professional. Fast forward a few scenes, and Mace has gone rogue with the tacit approval of her boss, who knows she’ll do her own thing no matter what he tells her. There’s a lot of inconsequential talk about investigations and sanctions and going on the run, but Mace never doubts that she’s one of the “good guys,” and neither does the movie. Yaas, queen! Rock that black site!
A remarkably similar scene also plays out in German, as we discover that Marie’s defiant attitude stems from childhood trauma. In fact, each of the women Mace pulls in to her mission over the course of this film’s plodding 124-minute runtime has some kind of damage: Khadijah (Nyong’o), the British tech wizard, is “out of the game” and has to be pulled back in for “one last job.” Graciela (Cruz), a Colombian therapist who’s caught up in all this through machinations even the movie doesn’t fully understand, has a husband and kids back home. Chinese agent Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan), meanwhile, comes in too late for such a motivation. But she is proficient in “ancient Chinese herbs.”
There’s a lot of talk about the personal stakes of “the job” in The 355, a theme more in line with the superhero movies director Simon Kinberg usually makes than a straightforward espionage thriller like this one. The Bourne movies hover in the background throughout—even the film’s poster declares that it’s “from the studio that brought you Jason Bourne.” And Kinberg makes extensive use of those films’ most famous stylistic flourish, shaking the camera like the action scenes were filmed on a rickety trolley car. But while a sprinkling of handheld forced perspective shots add visual interest, overall the action is as sloppy as the characters’ spy craft. A tightly wound spring, this movie is not.
Mostly, though, the feeling of The 355 is like watching kids play pretend. That’s partially because of the film’s oversimplified “good guy/bad guy” moral binary, as well as the eye-rolling clumsiness of the dialogue and the stock globetrotting locations. (This movie has scenes at a drug lord’s jungle compound, a bustling Middle Eastern market, and a swank Shanghai skyscraper. Put that on your spy-movie bingo card.) But there’s also a lack of chemistry between the leads, and a school-play stiffness to the performances—which is odd, given that there are multiple Oscar winners in the cast.
It’s easy to understand why an actor might want to be in a movie like this one: It looks fun as all get out to bark out lines like “We’re spies, asshole!” and do cool flips in a black turtleneck. But, as so often happens, an enjoyable day’s work on set doesn’t translate into an entertaining movie. On screen, as in real life, simply dropping a woman into the same old role isn’t enough to truly change the game.