Everyone has that friend. You know the type. You know his heart in the right place. You know he tries to be a kind and decent person. You never go out of your way to see this friend, but it’s always pleasant enough when you do. You’ve had some good times together. And deep down you know you know you’re not closer with this friend because he is actually quite dumb. The 355, dear reader, is that sort of friend.
The cast of The 355 is spectacularly talented. Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year, Zero Dark Thirty), Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Lupita Nyong’o (Us, 12 Years a Slave), Diane Kruger (Troy, FX’s The Bridge), and Bingbing Fan (Lost in Beijing, X-Men: Days of Future Past) come together as a team of spies to thwart baddies pursuing a James Bond-esque macguffin that allows the control of all technology on Earth, or something. Each character occupies an archetypical action hero trope: Chastain is the hero motivated by an (apparently) murdered paramour, Cruz is the non-field agent forced into the field for the first time, Nyong’o is the veteran of a mission gone awry dragged out of retirement, Kruger is the loose cannon, and Bingbing is the enemy turned ally. There’s nothing wrong with archetypal characters especially in a big cast, plot heavy movie like this; they can serve as a shorthand to help the audience dig into the story more easily. Yet here it is taken to an extreme. To give but one example, Kruger’s character’s supervisor goes out of his way to tell her in a mission debriefing that she’s “good at everything… except following orders!” I guffawed at the line, which clearly was not the film’s intent. It’s so much more jarring when Kruger’s actual performance makes her Wild Card action hero role abundantly clear.
The script can’t help itself but to over-explain relationships that are painfully obvious as well. Instead of just letting Chastain and fellow spy Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) bask in their palpable chemistry, the actors are forced to dump expositions about their will they/won’t they past. It’s not even cute flirtatious banter – it feels like a Wikipedia summary of their time working together. Stan is a wonderfully sly actor and manages to sell more about their relationship with a wry smirk than anything the script provides. Édgar Ramírez (Carlos, Hands of Stone) also appears winningly, albeit briefly, as a mentor figure to Cruz’s character.
All of the performers are doing their best to elevate the material. It’s clear Chastain has worked hard to master the physical elements for the fight scenes as her grappling is pretty impressive. Kruger brings the same live wire energy she once used to elevate The Bridge into something special. The ever wonderful Penelope Cruz is clearly committed to a fairly thankless part. Nyong’o is perhaps the strongest member of the ensemble when given more to do that tap away at computer screens. A drink shared between the four main women – Bingbing Fan is later to the party – is a window into a better film. The writing is looser and more charming, and four excellent performers are clearly having a joy razzing one another about past career mishaps. It has a vibrant, perhaps improvisational, edge that the rest of the movie lacks.
The other big problem is that I’m not sure director Simon Kinberg (Dark PhoeniX) knows exactly what sort of movie he wants to write. The 355 is far too serious, and at times downright dour, to occupy a comedic action lane like Kingsman: The Secret Service. It is also far too goofy to be fit neatly in the lane of a more serious spy thriller like the Bourne movies. It is, of course, fine to seek to navigate the two extremes but The 355 ebbs wildly between the two extremes. One early sequence sees Chastain’s character chase Kruger’s into a Parisian metro in a sundress with a giant handgun. It could be the stuff of amazing spy farce, but it’s played almost entirely straight. Conversely, a late act twist sees tragedy strike the team and all of a sudden Lupita Nyong’o dips into an immensely darker, more raw movie. She’s downright incredible in the scene, but it leaves me with the feeling that Kinsberg had no grasp of how to balance tragedy and comedy.
This is all a long winded way of getting to the simple point: this movie is not smart enough to wrangle all of its characters, tonal shifts, and plot machinations. As apparently the only person on Earth who thought Dark PhoeniX, Kinsberg’s directorial debut, was a pretty decent comic book movie, I really do think the man has some directorial talent. He’s restrained and blessedly competent at action – it’s easy to tell where the characters are in relationship to one another and his fight scenes always carry some energy. He’s a solid visual craftsman too. It’s the writing where he loses me.
All that said, I actually largely enjoyed my time with The 355. I’m a sucker for action spy stories and this one is – tonal shifts and overwriting aside – a pretty fun one. It’s filmed on location! There’s genuine care put into the below the line elements like the production design and costumes. It is clear that attention was paid to designing the action sequences. Were it released on Netflix, I’d likely be praising how much more competently and lovingly made it is than something like Red Notice. The 355 mercifully does not feel beholden to the staccato ‘keep them from moving to something else’ editing that is endemic to so many lower and mid-tier Netflix releases. It may not be a perfect film, but it is very clearly a film at least.
Seemingly every week (on, permit me a shameless plug, Final Review), I lament the decline and fall of theatrical releases. The 355 – a mid-budget spy thriller – is precisely the sort of movie that would’ve been an easy success in the 80s, 90s or 00s. It features beautiful movie stars traveling around the world doing movie star things: Action! Sex! Comedy! So, even though I have some significant quibbles with this film, I recommend giving it a shot in theaters. I still want to see these types of movies on the big screen, and if we don’t support them now then the ever encroaching dominance of the Netflix production algorithm will soon consume them. The 355 may not be my brightest friend, but I didn’t mind spending two hours with it.
The 355 opens in theaters in the United States tomorrow. It will stream exclusively on Peacock beginning February 21, 2022.