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‘The 355’ review: I spy with my little eye few thrills and flimsy feminism

Even a megawatt female cast can’t dazzle in 'The 355,' a dull espionage flick

The 355
(Image: © Universal Pictures)

Our Verdict

Action, yes. Thrills, no. This soulless spy ensemble lets down the formidable women at its helm

For

  • - An all-star female cast with global appeal to boot
  • - We appreciate that it’s an original conceit, not merely a gender-switched rewrite of an already-existing tentpole

Against

  • - Action sequences are frequently sloppy, with stunt actors clearly visible and main cast seemingly unsure of themselves
  • - Any semblance of real-deal female empowerment is forsaken for surface-level “go girl!” feminism

“James Bond doesn’t have to deal with real life,” Jessica Chastain quips late into The 355, a women-led action “thriller” named after Agent 355, the historical code name of a famed female spy during the American Revolutionary War. But despite the 007 shade being thrown and the historical inspiration behind its title, there’s very little “life” to be found in this spy snoozefest.

Chastain stars as the unartfully named Mason “Mace” Browne, a CIA agent who goes rogue when a seemingly world-ending data drive is intercepted during a cartel heist and hits the black market. To intercept the cyber weapon before it further falls into the wrong hands, she assembles the least inconspicuous girl-squad of heisters the big screen has seen since Ocean’s 8: a mix of friends (Lupita N’yongo’s Khadijah, a former MI6 cyber intelligence expert), rivals (a German BND agent played by Diane Kruger, the only one who pulls off the jerky stuntwork) and newbies (Penélope Cruz as a Colombian psychologist, the closest thing the movie has to comic relief).

Nothing honors the film’s covert namesake — the invisible woman who was never named — quite like a pack of supernaturally stunning perfume-ad regulars. The actors’ glaring glamour means that viewers are treated to the usual haute hijinks we’ve now come to expect from femme-focused action films: high-tech cameras hidden in high-end jewelry, rendezvous at black-tie events to show off our foursome in floor-skimming designer duds and scene after implausible scene of professional operatives sprinting after bad guys in high-heeled boots. 

Co-written by playwright Theresa Rebeck and the movie’s director Simon Kinberg (Dark Phoenix), The 355’s script never lets its starry cast indulge in any of the campiness, comedy or charisma of secret-agent crowd-pleasers like Spy or even Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which Kinberg also penned. Nor does it give such capable thesps (two Oscar winners among them) any real beefy backstories to chew on, despite throwaway mentions of beloved children, romantic partners and daddy issues waiting for them back home.

Chastain, who produced the movie under her production company Freckle Films, first brought the idea of a female-led spy movie to Kinberg while filming Dark Phoenix. But despite the fact that The 355 technically passes the Bechdel test (criteria to measure female representation in a work, i.e. are there at least two women talking about something other than a man?), it operates in the bubbly rah-rah feminism of a shampoo commercial, frothed by a lack of distinction or depth for the very women of which it so loudly boasts. (“We all look different, speak different, but we are the same,” one character declares — as if that were a good thing.) 

Like its numerous globe-trotting settings — some Marrakesh markets here, Shanghai skyscrapers there — the women of The 355 are a collection of international souvenirs, a girl-power gang built on manufactured comradery and marketing copy. In the guise of equality, the male faction of the cast, led by Sebastian Stan as Mace’s CIA colleague and erstwhile love interest, similarly doesn’t get much to tussle with, mostly relegated to forgettable shaky-cam action sequences.

Does the world need another spy movie? That’s debatable. But we’d happily watch one with this caliber of a female cast — and with womanhood, real womanhood at its center — if only the depth of their talent wasn’t betrayed by the shallowness around them.

 The 355 premieres in theaters on Jan. 7 and will stream on Peacock 45 days after its theatrical release. See our new movies guide for more films coming out soon.