355 Fights for the Female Buddy Action Movie, and Loses
I wish it won. But it does not.
While male buddy action movies have been around for decades, the sisterhood action drama has only just started to become a mini-subgenre over the last few years. Ghostbusters (2016), Charlie’s Angels (2019) and Birds of Prey (2020) all mixed quips, actions, and feminist empowerment in varying degrees. None of them exactly took off, but that didn’t stop The 355 from trying again. Writer/director Simon Kinberg (Dark Phoenix) tries the formula with dour earnestness dialed up and political subtext dialed down. The result is unfortunately not very memorable.
CIA agent Mace Brown (Jessica Chastain) and her partner/love interest Nick (Sebastian Stan) are ordered to retrieve a magical computer drive which can hack into any system, causing planes to crash, cities power grids to go offline, and various terrorists to salivate. The CIA’s efforts are complicated by German agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger). With the mission going off the rails, Mace pulls old friend and computer wizard Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) out of retirement. Along the way they also encounter Colombian psychologist Graciela (Penélope Cruz) and Chinese villain and/or agent Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing).
The plot is, as you’d expect of a spy drama, exceedingly twisty. There are numerous betrayals, double-crosses, shocking reveals, and reassessments of allegiances. Kinberg loves false endings, and the first couple fake out denouments are genuinely clever. By the fourth one, though, it starts to feel like a gimmick.
Having a gimmicky plot wouldn’t necessarily be terrible if this were a fun, lighthearted romp, a la the Roger Moore era James Bonds. But Kinberg is going more for Daniel Craig. There are a lot of wounded loners and traumatic backstories blasting their way through the narrative, and some incongruously gratuitous murders. The film tries to up emotional stakes through sheer ruthlessness. But killing people off indiscriminately doesn’t necessarily make us care about them.
On the contrary, the piling of event upon event and character upon character makes it difficult to connect with any of the protagonists—an impressive feat when you’re dealing with such charismatic actors. Nyong-o’s relationship with her sweet, worried civilian boyfriend is adorable, but it’s only onscreen for a few minutes total. Cruz has a fun scene where she switches from nervous housewife to smoking temptress and back, but again its brief and not repeated.
Mace and Marie are supposed to be the isolated assassin badasses who come to trust each other. They aren’t individually differentiated enough to really make that buddy tension spark, though, and there’s so much else happening that what seems like it should be the essential emotional arc of the film doesn’t quite arc. It more flops.
All can be forgiven in an action movie if the action is great. Alas, once more The 355 is nothing special in this regard. There are the requisite martial arts fisticuffs, gun battles, and car chases in various exotic locales, from a Shanghai auction to a Middle Eastern street bazaar. It all falls into that loud but unsatisfying middle-ground between Jackie Chan over-the-top preposterous invention and Atomic Blonde visceral grit. The movie fulfills the genre requirements adequately, and if you’re a fan of those genre requirements you won’t be disappointed. You probably won’t be too excited either though.
Any women-team-up action movie is going to have political implications given the longstanding maleness of the genre and the relationship between sisterhood and feminist resistance. Charlie’s Angels and Ghostbusters embraced the “overthrow the patriarchy!” messaging, and as a result received a lot of backlash from the usual tedious patriarchy defenders. The 355 is less forthright in its messaging. It’s only at the very end that it explicitly suggests that men can get away with murder because they’re men, or that the women are fighting for gendered empowerment in addition to battling to save the world. Holding those themes till so late means they seem tacked on and don’t provide the film with the energy or purpose it lacks in other regards.
Popular success is hard to predict, and maybe The 355 will capture audience imaginations and set Kinberg up for the sequel he very obviously wants to shoot. More likely, though, this is going to be another sisterhood action box office dud. That’s really unfortunate, because the idea is sound. If men can bond while blowing things up, why not women? Hopefully the right vehicle will come along and establish the burgeoning genre as a force. I don’t think this is the one, though.
First published January 2022.
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