“No no no, I’m going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I’m just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?”
On a routine CIA mission in Paris posing as newlyweds, Mason ‘Mace’ Browne (Jessica Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) attempt to recover Janek’s hack-everything MacGuffin from the 1992 movie Sneakers. Nick and Mace get separated when the package is stolen by a foreign operative (Diane Kruger), forcing Mace to strike out on her own and recruit retired MI6 tech specialist Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) for a “sanctioned” unsanctioned mission. Already labeled a wild card and under investigation, Mace and her associates must stay ahead law enforcement, catch up to the bad guys, and keep their loved ones safe… because they’re women, and it’s very important to remind viewers of that repeatedly, okay?
From the writer, producer, and director of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Simon Kinberg offers up not just a lady spy film but a potential franchise starter… like everything else in Hollywood. With a title based on an American Revolutionary War heroine who was never caught or identified, the trailer is a bullet-point list of action movie tropes: action poses, explosions, shattering glass, roll calls, calls to action, flash-bangs, subway shootouts, and a mandatory thumping soundtrack. At a glance, it doesn’t look terrible, but it also doesn’t look unique, even falling back on the now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t person-of-mystery gag. Also starring Penélope Cruz and Bingbing Fan, is the team more than the sum of their on-screen pedigree, or did someone waste five decent actresses on an over-loud excuse for pyrotechnics and stunt work?
One of the biggest issues with Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix (other than being the third attempt to tell that story from anyone’s POV except Jean Grey) is the randomness of the plot and it’s inability to make anything gel together. The 355 is slightly less ridiculous, starting with implausibility and getting less credible as it goes, contriving reasons to throw our “Fox Force Five” together (see Pulp Fiction for details) any way it can. The action sequences are standard choreographed set destruction scenes — and at earsplitting volumes compared to the whispered dialog — but the gaps between them are filled with marshmallow fluff, such as the reluctance of any bad guy to kill the spy gals… who of course keep regrouping to come after them. Cue Scott Evil: “I have a gun in my room; you give me five seconds, I’ll get it, I’ll come back down here, BOOM, I’ll blow their brains out!” Wait: did Dr. Evil from Austin Powers secretly shop this script?
Then there’s Penélope Cruz as Graciela, our fish-out-of-water, essentially the same character played by Naomi Scott in the 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot but with one exception: Graciela is pretty useless. In fact, her entire character could have been eliminated once she unlocks a phone — because we see someone else easily add her bio-metric login the same way — and Khadijah is supposed to be hack-the-planet girl. Every set-up and money shot is contrived again and again, not to mention the fact the film takes itself too seriously to really be seen as much fun. A question for the sound engineers: what’s with the noticeably weird moan-grunts whenever a heroine gets hit or falls into something? It probably shouldn’t sound sexy, if that’s what they were going for, and God have mercy on them if they thought so.
Audiences looking for simple plots, easy to guess surprises, or lots of bullets from five capable actresses who clean up nice when not wearing tactical gear, this is the movie for you. For anyone hoping to see Chastain, Kruger, Nyong’o, Cruz, and Fan in an actual kick-ass spy flick, this isn’t the film you’re looking for — move along. While it’s easy to chastise the villains for failing to bump off their competition after repeated opportunities, here’s a reminder for the heroes: if the MacGuffin is too dangerous to be safe in anyone’s hands, just destroy the damn thing when you get it, okay?
The 355 is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, brief strong language, suggestive material, but at least the director didn’t make Chastain play an alien named “Vuk” this time.
One skull recommendation out of four