When asked about the idea of rebooting James Bond as a woman, Daniel Craig and other folks involved with the 007 series have politely dodged the question by arguing that female performers deserve characters as exciting as Bond that are written for them, rather than rejiggered versions of male icons. Potential glibness aside, they might have a point. Bond is defined largely by his routines and recitations; it might be difficult to engineer an official Lady Bond that wasn’t principally self-commentary on those old familiar tropes, rather than her own person. Then again, coming up with a female equivalent of Bond whole-cloth is easier said than done; think of how many movies have failed to properly rip off John Wick, let alone the world’s most famous fictional spy.
James Bond is mentioned directly in The 355, because almost nothing that could be implied by this ensemble spy picture is left coyly unsaid. Some spies speak in code; these characters converse almost entirely in the disappointingly universal language of the weary screenwriter, who tries to lampshade tired lines like “I’m done with that life” with rejoinders like “Everyone always says that.” Yes, they certainly do. In this context, the invocation of Bond’s name almost counts as an innovation. He’s described as a superspy badass who nonetheless always winds up alone, all conditions with which Mason (Jessica Chastain), a steely CIA officer, readily identifies. Mason, who professes to have no family or friends outside of her colleague Nick (Sebastian Stan) in a way that makes it seem like the CIA grows their employees in labs, is put on a collision course with members of multiple other intelligence agencies while she and Nick pursue a device that can hack into any closed digital system on Earth. Basically, they’re all after an updated version of the box from Sneakers.
Ah, Sneakers. Now there was a Universal Pictures movie about a ragtag crew of professionals that would serve as a fine model for an all-female spy ensemble in terms of balancing pulpy characterization and chummy shtick. The 355 has more of a Fox Force Five vibe, where everyone Mason encounters has a showcase skill: Her friend Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) knows cyber-stuff; Marie (Diane Kruger) wields the most physical intensity; Graciela (Penelope Cruz) is a psychologist with little field experience; and Lin Mi (Fan Bingbing) specializes in enticing a particularly lucrative foreign box-office market. Eventually, it dawns on them that perhaps teaming up would be more effective than pausing their McGuffin pursuits to engage in knock-down, drag-out fights with each other. They may not be able to spot the movie’s most rudimentary twists in loyalty, but at least they can help each other noisily track down that all-powerful device.
It must be said that none of these spies are exceptionally stealthy, either on their own or as a team. At first, there are some chaotic thrills to the messy scenes where the various agents intersect and collide—more smash-and-grab than tradecraft, to utilize a handful of the cliched phrases that the movie itself somehow leaves out of its vernacular. After a while, it becomes clear that all five of them are willing to attract as much attention as possible in any given situation. Their surprise at being “made,” from the markets of Morocco to the cafes of Paris, never ceases, no matter how closely they tail people and whip their guns into plain sight at the slightest provocation. When these moves fail to attract enough attention, Mason can always fall back on wearing a stupid hat. (Mason is the type of deep-cover agent who, when posing as half of a honeymooning married couple, sports an engagement ring rather than a wedding band. Just stunning attention to detail.)
The 355 looks “good,” in the sense that the performers are beautiful, their costumes are sleekly colorful and at least some of the locations appear to be real. That last point is depressingly crucial in the era of movies like Red Notice conducting tours of internationally-themed green screens. But director/co-writer Simon Kinberg has no real sense of mood, pacing or style—all the stuff that turns a colorfully lit hallway into an actually-evocative image. Absent any meaning or lasting aesthetic pleasures, the movie’s greatest spectacle is its ability to embroil extremely talented actresses (with two Oscars and plenty of other awards between them!) into a watchably stupid airplane movie, under the guise of exploring the psychology of Women Who Work. If playwright Theresa Rebeck, who receives co-writing and story credit, brought a fresher perspective to this material at some point, it has been slathered in screenwriterly varnish and a sense of take-charge female empowerment best described as EuropaCorpesque.
It’s almost immaterial how the performers acquit themselves. Nevertheless: Kruger fares the best simply by inhabiting the character who seems most compellingly unhinged. Nyong’o speaks in an English accent in a gracious attempt to make the movie’s banter sound smarter. Bingbing might well have filmed most of her scenes elsewhere. Cruz’s character arc involves her becoming slightly more comfortable with murder. As for ringleader Chastain, well… at least she got some practice fights out of the way in the even less convincing Ava. The 355—the title, by the way, refers to a collective name for the supergroup that’s explained as an afterthought—feels as if it intended to set up a franchise, only to get discouraged before it reaches its first finish line. As Mason and every hack screenwriter never tires of pointing out, it really is a lonely life.
Director: Simon Kinberg
Writers: Simon Kinberg, Theresa Rebeck
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, Penelope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, Sebastian Stan, Edgar Ramirez
Release Date: January 7, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.