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Film Review

‘The 355’ mostly succeeds where others have come up short


“The 355”
PG-13 | 122 minutes
Director: Simon Kinberg
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Bingbing Fan

“The 355,” directed by Simon Kinberg (“X-Men: Dark Phoenix”), who co-wrote with Theresa Rebeck, is not an instant classic by any means. It is, however, a straightforward and solidly entertaining spy thriller that (mostly) avoids the impulse to pat itself on the back. The premise isn’t groundbreaking and is, at times, even a little predictable: 

Jessica Chastain plays Mason “Mace” Brown, a CIA agent who has to join forces with rival agents from other countries to get back a top-secret and highly deadly cyber-weapon that has fallen into mercenary hands.

Those agents include hardened German agent and demolitions expert Marie (Diane Kruger), computer specialist and British MI-6 agent Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), and Colombian psychologist Graciela (Penélope Cruz). The team also has to stay ahead of a mysterious woman who is tracking their every move, played by Chinese actress Bingbing Fan.

“The 355” hits all the expected beats ably. Like any good spy movie these days, the action takes place around the world. The movie’s use of the locations helped to highlight how female agents can do their jobs in different and unique ways than we’re used to seeing men do.

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Their globetrotting brings them to sleek high-rises and crowded markets, they fight in hoodies and in heels, they find an excuse for our heroines to get glammed up at a major auction (all spies deserve at least one black-tie affair in the middle of all the chaos), and they even get to share a beer and a few war stories.

Though some of the plot twists will be obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a spy movie, the screenplay does manage to spring a couple of surprises as well.

The main characters are a little simply drawn, but the actors give them enough depth to pass. Not only do you believe that these are all smart, capable women (who do a nice job showing you that instead of telling), they also seem like they’ve all lived lives before the cameras started shooting them. Nyong’o, in particular, is a standout as the tech wiz who was trying to move on with her life. Kruger does a great job elevating her character beyond “angry, loner German.” Cruz gets the short stick as the fish out of water, but she’s still fun to have in the mix.

“The 355” mostly succeeds where others have come up short because it put the movie and the story first  — not the message. The title of the movie “The 355,” which might seem a bit weird, is actually a reference to a female spy during the American Revolution, known only as Agent 355, who helped America win the war. It’s come to represent spies whose identities and accomplishments are never fully known to the public.

It’s a little suspect when too much is made of a big action movie being “female-fronted.”  Unfortunately, Hollywood has decided lately that, in course correcting for decades of gender inequity in certain genres, it’s not enough to just make an action-packed movie starring an ensemble cast of women — they must let the audience know that they know this is a demonstration of girl power. And, frankly, whether it’s the lady Avengers assembling in “Infinity War,” a montage of “these girls do sports AND science” in the latest “Charlie’s Angels,” or all of “Ocean’s 8,” it’s hard not to see it as insulting to its purported audience.

There have been subtler, cleverer and just plain better efforts at bringing women to the forefront of so-called male genres (check out Steve McQueen’s “Widows” ), but “The 355” has cool action moments and talented actresses.  It’s worth a look if you like the spy film genre or are a fan of the actresses involved. ♦

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