The Pitch: There is a certain sub-genre of films, largely action films, that belong to a very specific time and place — an idyllic lazy Saturday afternoon, that post-lunch or brunch drowsiness kicking in as you nestle into your couch at home, searching for something to watch that won’t require too much effort to engage with on your part. The kind of movie you might watch with your dad over the holidays, just because it’s on cable.
What The 355 offers up is a perfect Saturday afternoon dad movie, but instead of starring Stallone or Eastwood or Bronson, it stars five women with six Oscar nominations and two wins between them. (And was written by the creator of NBC’s Smash!) Approached with those sorts of low expectations, the new action drama starring Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger, and Bingbing Fan is totally acceptable, at times pretty entertaining. If that sounds like damning with faint praise — yep, that’s exactly what it is.
Jennifer Garner Did It First: At two hours and two minutes, The 355 has about the same amount of plot as a 42-minute episode of Alias, all of it Frankenstein’ed from other action movies. Mason “Mace” Browne (Chastain) is a badass CIA officer who, after a mission goes wrong, has to team up with several women from other international intelligence agencies to track down an all-important MacGuffin hard drive that has apocalyptic levels of control over the world’s electronics. (Pretty much 100% sure that that actually was the plot of an episode of Alias, at one point.)
The plot, of course, is all in service to the raison d’etre of the film, which is to bring together a cool group of actresses and give them guns so they can shoot a whole lot of people. At this objective, The 355 is actually quite successful, and it does a solid job as well of making sure that these characters are all tough and interesting in their own unique ways, from the ruthless focus of Kruger as Marie to Cruz’s Graciela, whose inexperience in the field offers a refreshing contrast to the jadedness of the other women.
Nyong’o also once again proves that she is capable of nailing any role you hand her; of the assembled cast, she’s the one who feels most deserving of her own spinoff. Meanwhile, Chastain keeps things pretty close to her chest without offering up any other traits beyond a fierce self-reliance, which makes Mace a capable action hero, but also a less-than-memorable protagonist.
Again, this film is co-written by Smash creator Theresa Rebeck, who is not a stranger to this genre (for one thing, she was one of the six to 12 writers on the 2004 film Catwoman). However, according to Deadline, the idea originated with Chastain, who pitched the idea of a female-led spy film to director Simon Kinberg while they were working together on X-Men: Dark Phoenix.
With way fewer moving pieces to deal with than an X-Men movie, Kinberg manages to keep things balanced, with a few action set pieces that ascend beyond “characters randomly kicking and punching each other.” The downside is that much like Dark Phoenix is arguably the least-memorable X-Men movie made yet, it’s hard to imagine The 355 lingering in our collective memories for too long.
Ugh, That Trailer? If The 355 will be most remembered for anything, it might be this: Those who felt comfortable returning to the movie theater in the post-vaccination summer of 2021 might have observed a phenomenon where every big release was preceded by pretty much the exact same three or four trailers.
The 355 was one of those trailers, which is a damn shame because while it hard-sells the most appealing bits of the film (specifically, the female-led action sequences) it also totally spoils nearly every plot beat of the entire movie, something you slowly realize as you watch, waiting for some of the too-familiar lines to be said.
Not that it really matters, though, because pretty much every twist (including perhaps the biggest) is so predictable that it’s impossible to engage with the movie emotionally, because a lot of the emotional drama is based on a plot development that anyone who’s ever seen a movie can see through immediately. No spoilers, but hopefully this is the last time a movie thinks it can get away with this particular trope, because at this point it’s beyond tired.
The 355 is the kind of movie where you find yourself really appreciating the costume design, which feels like a bit of an insult — except designer Stephanie Collie’s work does deserve appreciation, given the thoughtful touches given to Nyong’o’s menswear or the sleeveless velvet jumpsuit Kruger wears for one of the film’s major setpieces. And perhaps one of the strongest qualities of The 355 is that it does recognize how these sorts of feminine-coded elements do matter; occasionally, these characters even wear flats during their action scenes, a truly wild concept.
Those choices are quite subdued in comparison to some of the dialogue scenes, which seek to remind the audience in between bursts of violence that yes, women are treated differently by men. Again, this film was co-written by the creator of Smash, not a show known for its subtle dramatic hand. But none of these scenes actually feel all that out of place, grounded in the honest truth that yeah, sometimes it’s different for girls.
The Verdict: There’s something very deliberate about how straightforward The 355 is as a film, eschewing the goofy nature of its most obvious comparison point — Charlie’s Angels — to instead present a very grounded picture of what a lady James Bond movie would look like.
Of course, even the most grounded of James Bond movies has a certain level of goofy fun baked in; it’s inherent to the genre. And if The 355 had been a bit more conscious of this, it might have been a far more successful movie. But a few months from now, once it’s been released on VOD or streaming, we can all look forward to stumbling across it on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Because a woman really can do anything a man can do — up to and including starring in a dad movie.
The 355 premieres in theaters on Friday, January 7th.