There’s a popular phrase some of us use when discussing an extremely talented actor. We’ll say, “I’d watch that person read the phone book.” It assumes that no matter how bland, flavorless, or predictable the material this gifted performer is handed, they’ll find a way to make it sing – to vibrate off of the screen and make the movie or TV program with which they are involved be, at the very least, watchable.
I’m going to have to rethink that statement. Under normal circumstances, I absolutely would apply that sentiment to Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o and, to a lesser extent, Sebastian Stan. They’re all actors I gladly would have handed a phone book before eagerly anticipated their interpretation. But they couldn’t save Simon Kinberg’s The 355 from being a rote, paint-by-numbers spy thriller, and if they couldn’t salvage this movie, who on this planet could?
There’s too much talent in The 355 for it to be this generic.
There are two factors helping The 355 stand out from its spy thriller counterparts. To begin with, it utilizes an ensemble of international agents working together to complete a mission that has vexed each of them individually. The spy genre tends to be populated with solo acts, whether it be James Bond or Jason Bourne. It also, in the past, has largely been male-dominated – though standout features like Atomic Blonde, The Old Guard and Gunpowder Milkshake are doing their part in recent years to start balancing the scales and showcase more kick-ass women.
As was the case with Atomic Blonde and Gunpowder Milkshake, the women cast as The 355’s leads are extraordinarily gifted and versatile actors who have held down outstanding dramas, comic-book action thrillers, and international crowd-pleasers. But their combined skills can’t elevate a razor-thin script that offers more cliches than surprises.
Naturally, there is a device (there’s always a device) that the villains want, and the spies need to retrieve it. This one can launch World War III, or some such silliness, but the threat is vague, and there isn’t even a juicy bad guy for audiences to invest in. The women of The 355 merely mow down faceless adversaries without breaking much of a sweat, dancing through tired action sequences you’ve seen before far too many times.
Simon Kinberg’s a better producer than he is a director.
You might not know Simon Kinberg by name, but you definitely have seen movies he has either written or produced. One of his earliest screenwriting credits was the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie vehicle Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and he was the producing muscle behind Logan, and Deadpool (the best X-Men movies), and Ridley Scott’s The Martian. He’s an excellent producer, but an average director. His adequate X-Men: Dark Phoenix got a pass due to perceived behind-the-scenes strife associated with Disney purchasing Fox, and not wanting to extend the X-Men franchise in any form. But The 355 furthers the notion that Kinberg’s approach to action and his sense of pacing isn’t going to ruin a film, but it’s also not going to upgrade it.
That’s the unfortunate truth about The 355. It’s not awful, but it deserved to be better. The potential of these women teaming up, sharing scenes, trading war stories, and taking down bad guys should be enough to get people in the door, but The 355 doesn’t offer its audience anything extraordinary, or even theater-worthy. Features like this are readily available on both streamers like Netflix and B-grade cable networks.
Here’s the main lesson learned after watching The 355: Invite as many A-listers to your party as you can – but make sure they have something more substantial to eat than American cheese sandwiches served on Wonder bread with extra mayonnaise.