Baffling, bad, bland ‘355’ a hopeful franchise starter, likely a career ender

Image courtesy Universal Pictures.

1/10 There’s such a stigma around early January releases that at this point, any time a movie gets put in those slots, I stop for a while and laugh at it. Putting a movie with a major budget here, where it will wither under the glut of Christmas releases, is such an early admission of failure that you have to wonder what’s already gone wrong. Thanks to the COVID-19 crisis, writer/director/producer Simon Kinberg’s The 355 got not one, but two early January release dates.

The 355 is a movie about a team of female secret agents called Fox Force Five – “Fox,” as in they’re a bunch of foxy chicks, “Force” as in they’re a force to be reckoned with and “Five” as in there’s one two three four five of them. The redhead, Mace Browne (Jessica Chastain, who also produces), she’s the leader. The Chinese fox, Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan) is a kung fu master. The black girl, Khakijah Adiyeme (Lupita Nyong’o), is a cybersecurity expert. Columbian fox Graci Rivera’s (Penélope Cruz) specialty is therapy. The German fox, Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger), doesn’t seem to have a specialty, but she does always have a knife.

The team forms after all the foxes independently split from their respective national intelligence agencies to help recover a magical internet master key, the type of vaguely defined hacking macguffin screenwriters who didn’t understand the internet used to throw into scripts 20 years ago. Browne worries that this decryption device, in “the wrong hands,” could “start World War III,” but there’s never any clarity on what that fear really entails. How they would do this, why they would do this, who “they” is, what this would look like, are all questions that hang limply in the air. The device’s power is demonstrated multiple times by making planes crash – somehow?! – a reflection of the obvious, that the details of The 355 are meant to be filled in by the American psyche’s straggling post-9/11 trauma.

None of this is unique, but The 355’s understanding of what it’s doing is so poor, its incorporation of these tropes so thoughtless, that it becomes this awful movie’s most glaring and revealing question: what do any of these people want?

The 355 goes to great lengths to flesh out all five foxes, a goal that is understandable for a would-be franchise starter but pursued poorly, resulting in a confused movie with no perspective character, but it does create the sense that we should know what’s driving all of our heroines. Adiyeme and Rivera have mostly offscreen families whom they want to keep safe, and Lin is kept deliberately mysterious. Browne and Schmidt, however, seem to be driven by a sense of duty, an attachment to their assignment or loyalty to their employer that transcends the assignment or the employer’s desires itself – they both end up leaving their agencies, so it must be something higher than that, but what?

If his goal is to make money, why doesn’t he just hold onto his stocks? This plan would require no terrorism of any kind. Image of a handsomer villain taken from a better movie.

The various “theys” of the film, the evildoers trying to get their hands on the macguffin, all seem to be trying to make money, either by selling it or auctioning it or profiting, somehow, from the havoc they plan to cause with it. One of the main arch-baddies at one point screams about having already shorted all his stocks, so his man had better secure the device.

What do these people want to do with their lives? What are the emotional drives that make Browne and Schmidt so committed to their causes? Where’s the villain who actually wants to use the magical hacking device instead of just selling it, and what does he want to use it for? The 355 seems to imply some old freedom fighter reading CNN online from his cave in the Hindu Kush and cackling evilly at the nickel he gets every time a plane goes down. Is that how Kinberg thinks terrorism works?

The issue seems to be less a poor job establishing motivation and more of fundamentally not understanding what human beings want. Everything in this movie is means – money, the macguffin, even families are only brought in as leverage – but there are no ends in sight. It reflects an extremely negative and half-formed vision of humanity as a whole, and also reflects the reasons The 355 was made. The cynicism of this exercise was so powerful that the complete lack of motivation behind the camera extended to the characters in front of it.

Chastain’s idea for this was a gender-swapped Mission: Impossible or James Bond movie, but there’s little trace in The 355 of the death-wish stuntwork or outrageous glamour that have historically defined those series. It’s insane to think these pillars of excess in film, filled with private islands, near-magic gadgets and Tom Cruise leaping from progressively outrageous heights were the series they were trying to emulate after seeing a movie in which the evil plot is a mess of turn-of-the-century computer jargon and the climax is set in a decently sized hotel room. The series touted in eventual marketing material is the Bourne franchise, with which The 355 has no personnel overlap at all, but that clandestine, low-tech, deep urban paranoia does seem much closer to what they were going for.

The action is both constant and forgettable, a strange effect born to the lack of ideas for both plot and stunts. There’s a lot going on – “action” blockbusters with only three big fights at the exact beginning, middle and end always bother me, and The 355 doesn’t have this problem at all – but it’s all so tame that it seems like nothing’s going on. It’s filled with poorly shot shootouts where half the bullets seem to vanish after being fired and boring chase scenes. There are a few decent one-on-one bouts, the kind of scenes that are great opportunities to use action to advance a character emotionally, but these characters don’t have any emotions.

Most of the praise for The 355 has centered around its cast, and I guess they’re good? I like all of these actresses, but they don’t have anything to do! Nobody’s going to scare an Oscar for posing with guns and displaying as little emotion as possible. They could have got manikins for this! Image taken from an earlier cast shoot before Marion Cotillard dropped out for Kruger.

If we’re to take Chastain at her word that this is about progress and girls getting their turn, there’s a lot to get into about the actual history of feminist film theory and how simply inverting a film language that was assembled by men doesn’t make it feminine, how much more there is to these types of spy movies than the gender of their lead characters and how female action heroes are everywhere if you actually look for them – 2017’s Atomic Blonde has frequently been cited as a superior execution of The 355’s concept – but Chastain, of course, knows all this, she’s just trying to monetize feminism and establish a series for herself the way big studios have been in the past several years. To that, separately, there’s a lot to get into about feminism’s anti-capitalist roots, but we don’t need to spend time on theory. The 355 isn’t just pink capitalism, it’s pink capitalism that’s late to the party and trying to play a game the 2016 Ghostbusters remake already ruined for everyone.

It also doesn’t help that Chastain pegged Kinberg, with whom she was working on his horribly panned directorial debut X-Men: Dark Phoenix, to put this together. Kinberg isn’t a filmmaker, he’s an executive, and his writing credits are almost always as a co-writer on large teams realizing other people’s ideas. Recently, he’s been flying solo realizing other people’s ideas, and he’s clearly not suited for it.

I don’t think it’s just that he was the nearest power broker to Chastain when she came up with this – Kinberg’s motivations here are just as cynical as hers. He became one of the most powerful and well-paid men in Hollywood over the past decade and change by putting his name on all the X-Men movies, and that franchise is under new ownership, so he’s in a position where he both has the clout to push an original project through and needs to get a new gravy train going.

The lack of faith Universal showed in The 355, sticking tight to an early January deathtrap as it rescheduled from 2021 to 2022, is remarkable but well-earned and may represent the end of the line for Kinberg’s directing career. I don’t know where else he could catch on after being exposed like this, and after a $4.6 million whimper of an opening weekend, there’s certainly not going to be any 355 sequels for him to be grandfathered into.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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