Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The 355 – a decent concept and a fine cast cannot save this post-Christmas turkey

A gang of independent agents who have fallen out of favour of various global intelligence agencies combine their skills and nous to chase a handheld USB device with supercomputer capabilities through Colombia, Paris, Morocco and Shanghai to deactivate the cyber weapon that has fallen into the hands of terrorists.

The concept of The 355 – all except the power of the USB device – has the making of an interesting espionage action thriller.

Add to the mix a cast of the quality of Jessica Chastain playing forlorn and revengeful Mace (CIA), Diane Kruger as the steely, risk-taking German operative Marie (BND), Lupita Nyong’o as cyber wizard Khadijah (once MI6, now hiding in academia), Penélope Cruz as the gun-shy Colombian spy shrink, the later addition of Bingbing Fan playing MSS’s Lin who is watching events from afar … and you might have a hit franchise on your hands.

Unfortunately, this top-billing acting talent is forced to engage with a plot that is so technically and logistically implausible it makes Bond, Bourne and even Mission: Impossible look like real life spy documentaries.

Chastain is no stranger to kick ass action movies having starred in the much more glitzy Ava as the eponymous assassin with personal demons but plenty of drive. Yet in The 355, her initial moments in the French Capital with another operative resemble Emily in Paris rather than a cool-headed agent who – like Bond – should know not to mix business and pleasure. Marie seems to be the only agent to merit a proper back story.

Avoiding the femme fatale trope and acknowledging that the women at the centre of a story have home lives as well as work demands – “James Bond never has to deal with real life” / “James Bond always ends up alone” – does not by itself make a film feminist or worthy of praise.

The length of leash offered to these agents by their parent organisations seems more troubling to the audience than it is to the smart, questioning characters. The motivations driving their interpersonal decisions are not worthy of the image of strong professional women the film thinks it is selling. Though it’s fair to say that this would also have been a new year turkey with sharp-suited men at the helm. The problems run much deeper than the concept.

There’s the constant, reckless shooting around civilians, and the gang’s technical advantage of being able to “scan every camera in the city” while they are on the move yet their own agencies’ surveillance ability seem to max out at tracing their mobile calls to locate them! Fist fights in the middle of a gun battle. Mace’s struggle with a presumably armed guard that continues for ten minutes without either one reaching for his weapon.

The false ending after an hour could have produced a mediocre but expensive, stunt-heavy TV pilot episode to introduce the characters. But the cinema audience are only halfway through their endurance test. The 355 is not funny enough to be a comedy (though Cruz carries many moments). It’s not believable enough to be a gritty spy film. It’s not consistently glamorous enough to be a knowingly dazzling extravaganza.

The characters may at times feel betrayed by some of their colleagues, but the actors are ultimately betrayed by whole enterprise they signed up to that can neither commit to proper character development nor a decent premise. The ending signals that the intrepid international espionage collaboration have further battles to fight. But there’s hopefully more chance of a gun-toting Gunpowder Milkshake sequel going into production than The 355 being allowed back onto the silver screen.

If you want to see how bad it is, The 355 is being screened in many local cinemas. And watch out for Jason Flemyng. He pops up as a baddie for the second time this week!


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