The 355 review: Action ensemble sparkles with face-crunching action – but there's too much plot
Jessica Chastain forms a band of sisters for fun, friendship and violence – while saving the world, of course
Most people will never see the inside of a fish market freezer room, let alone be rugby-tackled into one by a CIA agent. Most people will never be tossed into a mound of frozen haddock, nor have to smash an assailant on the head with an oyster, but then again, most people aren’t in Universal’s new spy heist action thriller.
It’s a perilous situation Jessica Chastain has put herself in. As the lead focus of The 355, she’s in danger at every turn. Standing on the balcony? Here comes an enemy throwing his fists toward you. Chilling by the docks? Watch out for the JCB about to smash through that wall of crates. Settling down with a nice herbal tea? There’s only one way that’s going to end.
The threat that pulls all this chaos together is that of an all-powerful digital masterkey. In the film’s opening beats, a shady deal is taking place with said cyber weapon on offer. In showing off the goods’ potential, a city is sent into blackout and a passenger aircraft is taken out of the air, making it clear that this device is capable of starting - and ending - World War III, all in the space of a few keyboard strokes.
Inevitably this device cannot fall into, quote-unquote, the wrong hands. It is the CIA who take an early lead in the hunt, with agent Mason "Mace" Browne (Chastain) pairing with her close friend Nick (Sebastian Stan) to retrieve the key from an elusive contact. The mission, inevitably, goes awry, as German operative Marie (Diane Kruger) muddies the water.
Reluctant MI6 agent Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) is quickly drawn into the fold, while Colombian therapist Graciela (Penelope Cruz) soon also gets caught up in the melee. These women - along with Bingbing Fan’s Lin who joins the group quite far down the line - are swept into a perfect storm of international interests, a cyclone of mistrust first pitting the agents at odds, before uniting them against the greater threat.
And it is the evolving relationships between these women which gives the film its pulse. The film takes its name from the first female spy during the American Revolution, a woman known by no more than her codename, Agent 355. Writer/director Simon Kinberg, along with story writers Theresa Rebeck and Bek Smith, split this tradition between agents from the USA, Germany, Britain, Colombia and China, giving them each roles to contrast with their team of necessity.
Kruger’s Marie is a lone wolf, trusting no-one but her father-figure superior officer, who is long exasperated with her inability to play well with others. Evidently, Marie has a tumultuous relationship with the headstrong Mace, even before Lin swoops in with loyalties of her own. Khadijah tries to hold the group together, while Cruz’s out-of-her-depth Graciela is just trying to hold it together. Her therapist feels genuinely dropped in from elsewhere, more suited to a New York second-storey corner office filled with succulents to water than a bustling market in Marrakesh, filled with threats to life.
Chastain and Kruger are given the lion's share of the action and it is in these scenes where the film lets loose. Full-throttle close combat scenes combine with ruthless, efficient gunfights to create one of the hardest-hitting 12As going: executions, kill boxes and action hero explosions are all par for the course.
The combat hits hard, with the actors pulling no punches to create visceral fight scenes. Kinberg ensures these scenes aren’t littered with the thousands of cuts suffered by some other films of the genre, while Chastain and Bingbing Fan, especially, provide strength and a roughness to their fights, making them feel both real and reactive. Chastain even finds herself a new signature move: kicking people down the stairs.
The film is a well-tuned symphony of people's faces being driven into very hard surfaces but, with five central characters to flesh out, along with a host of enemies and more than a handful of subplots, the film has more than its fair share of exposition. Plot developments are started and then scooted past at breakneck pace, and while the bickering between the agents may well very much be part of the genre, it adds to the tangle which weighs the action down. We’re given so many threads to hold, we weren't sure if we should keep watching or knit a sweater.
This may be symptomatic of the size of the task the team took on. Kinberg, Rebeck and Smith are playing with a well-worn genre here, shaking together a sweet cocktail of spy and heist adventure, evoking everything from Bourne to Ocean’s, Mission: Impossible to Indiana Jones. They pack the two hours with double-crosses, spectacle and thousands of rounds fired and - despite the amount that needs to be talked out - The 355 credibly manages to become something of its own beast.
It’s a film that has popped the spy heist formula under a microscope, kept the best cliches and added plenty to be proud of. There’s a layered villain, whom you desperately want to see defeated, but also quite want to meet again, there are interpersonal relationships that fizz and grow and crash, and there’s pure reckless abandon shown for property and passers-by.
The 355 hasn't changed the game, but it is packed with thrills, spills and kills and will leave you with something more than just the added knowledge of which shellfish is best used in a fistfight.