The 355 is the latest project from Simon Kinberg, after his directorial debut with X-Men: Dark Phoenix. This time, it follows the story of Mason “Mace” Brown, played by Jessica Chastain, a CIA agent who goes rogue to avenge the murder of her partner Nick, played by Sebastian Stan. Along the way, Mace will have to team up with other female agents from different agencies across the world. Not much unlike Dark Phoenix, The 355 is a film that doesn’t live up to its premise.
Kinberg most definitely has an eye for promising stories and characters. One look at his producing credits on IMDB shows as much and is further reinforced by The 355. There are a plethora of thematic ideas that could come from a story about female agents having to go rogue to do the right thing. This team of bad-ass women all have unique faults and strengths, and their traits bounce off one another perfectly well. Marie Schmidt, a German agent, is played by Diane Kruger and has similar trust issues to Mace. Penelope Cruz plays Graciela Rivera, a therapist thrown into the line of duty by coincidence. Rivera’s responsibility to her family makes her a fantastic foil for Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Khadijah Adiyeme, who must lie to her boyfriend about her work as an agent.
Each of these agents has their own specialties. Marie has a history with demolitions, Mace excels at hand-to-hand combat, Khadijah is a cyber-hacker, and Graciela is a therapist for operatives. These unique characters and their dynamics have a lot of promise, but Kinberg is unable to fully realize that potential. In many ways, The 355 is the ultimate summer 2021 blockbuster. It shares a lot of the weaknesses that plagued G.I. Joe: Snake Eyes, Jungle Cruise, and Black Widow, with terrible action editing, wasted performances from great our greatest actresses, and a cluttered plot that goes nowhere.
Of all the great actors in the film, Sebastian Stan is the only one who seems to belong. He eats up each scene he is in, and as the plot develops, Stan cranks up the campiness of his performance perfectly. By comparison, Chastain, Cruz, Kruger, and Nyong’o all feel out of place in this film. While none of their performances are terrible, the lack of chemistry between them adds unintended tension to the entire film. This is further exaggerated when Bingbing Fan enters the film in the third act, playing Lin Mi Sheng, a Shang Hai-based agent. While the one-on-one interactions between each of these agents work, the ensemble never gels together completely.
Part of this is due to the script by Theresa Rebeck and Simon Kinberg, which is far too unfocused and meandering for this spy thriller to work. While spy films are notorious for their convoluted plots, The 355 makes the fatal flaw of forgetting the thematic through lines that carry the audience’s investment for the film. While the theme statement at the film’s finale is about how these females can come together and no longer be alone, the third act fails to sell us on this fact and combined with some of the devasting losses that occur to kickstart the third act, it doesn’t work.
The other fatal issue with The 355 is its editing and shot composition. While the production design, lighting, color grading and action choreography are gorgeous, the editing and shot composition do everything in their power to ruin each scene. Every sequence was shot using coverage, and the editing seems to use every camera on set. It creates a jumbled mess that lacks rhythm in the action scenes. Often, action beats seem to stick around too long, and it cuts any tension building in the scene. Add to it the frequent use of cutting on action, and you have fight sequences that lack impact and emotional investment.
This overuse of editing and coverage negatively impacts the cinematography of the film. Since there are multinational operatives in the film, there are plenty of lines spoken not in the English language. However, the subtitling for those lines leaves much to be desired, as they are frequently difficult to read. Some subtitles overlap with character clothing that is the same color as the subtitles, which doesn’t contrast well enough with the background to enable coherent viewing. While the usage of subtitles doesn’t bother me, the cinematography and editing seem to sabotage the legibility of these subtitles, making for a film that can be hard to follow and get emotionally invested in.
All in all, The 355 is a complete mess that fails to deliver on its interesting premise in every way.