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Dir: Simon Kinberg. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Bingbing Fan, Sebastian Stan, Édgar Ramírez. 12A, 123 minutes.
Jessica Chastain considers The 355 to be “a political act”. She was the one to first pitch the idea of a female-led spin on Mission: Impossible and James Bond to director Simon Kinberg, back when they were working on 2019’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Playwright Theresa Rebeck was brought in to work on the script with Kinberg. Their aim was to reverse the stereotypical portrayal of women spies as “honeypots” whose bodies are commodified and weaponised as tools for seduction.
But The 355 is a mark of progress only in how wholly unremarkable it feels. It doesn’t carry the same weight on its shoulders as Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde, or Ocean’s 8. No one’s holding up The 355 as the ultimate test of whether audiences have any appetite for a female-led action film. Even Chastain headlined an espionage thriller as recently as last year’s Ava. Perhaps that’s true equality in action – an international, diverse cast of actresses can now make a mediocre spy film, where they traverse glamorous locations and spout vaguely imperialist politics, and it can simply be bundled together with the hundred male-led iterations before it.
The appeal of The 355 lies not in its gender politics (the few punch-in-the-air, rigorously constructed empowerment moments come and go without much ceremony) but in the quality of its cast. Chastain’s CIA agent Mason “Mace” Browne is joined by Lupita Nyong’o as an MI6 tech specialist, Diane Kruger as an ice-cold German spy whose entire wardrobe consists of hoodies, Penélope Cruz as a fretful Colombian psychologist, and Fan Bingbing as a Chinese MSS agent with a watchful eye. They have all been recruited to help recover a technological super-weapon with the ability to trigger World War Three, after it falls into the hands of Édgar Ramírez’s rogue Colombian agent. Their personal and geographical allegiances may put them at odds, but – you guessed it – they’ll still have to work together.
Paris, London, Marrakesh, Shanghai – as the weapon continually changes hands, so these women must pack their carry-ons and travel to locations seemingly hand-picked from an in-flight travel magazine. It’s exactly the kind of reductionist vision of the world where a character, while in Morocco, can pick up a handful of coins and throw them to the ground as a distraction, knowing that a flock of children with grabby hands will appear out of nowhere. The action is slick and clean, but only with the illusion of toughness. Mason sprints through a Paris metro station while violently (almost spitefully?) shoving pedestrians out of the way. The cast do find their individual moments of sparky chemistry, rooted largely in how comfortable these women all seem in their own stardom – they share anecdotes about their first missions with the flippancy of discussing first kisses. The sullen detachment of Kruger’s character feels genuine, while Cruz, as the self-declared “normal person”, works both as the film’s comic relief and its heart.
But The 355 thinks of itself as better than the old, campier Bond films – or, at least, more emotionally grounded. That silly 007 is a man who “never has to deal with real life”, as Mason puts it. These women are instead forced into a choice – trust no one and die alone, or give in to vulnerability and risk losing everything. Mason’s colleague Nick (Sebastian Stan) is desperately infatuated with her. Others in the team have a partner, a beloved parent, or a couple of wide-eyed sprogs.
But the film can’t see anything hopeful, or particularly empowering, about the choices each character makes. The risk that comes from having a private life is just a burden for female spies to quietly bear, in a film that otherwise still obediently follows all that came before. They don’t get to revel in the simple fantasy of having nothing to lose and no lifelong responsibilities. So, yes, you could argue that The 355 is a political act – but from the outside, it looks a lot like simple conformity.