Let’s start with the bad stuff first: The 355 is a terrible movie that fails on almost every level. Let’s continue with the worst stuff: It didn’t have to be.
Conceptually, The 355 is perfectly sound if extremely conventional. It’s in the execution that it falls apart, an action film with bad action, inert editing and not enough of anything else to make up for what it doesn’t have. It’s all intensely depressing; a reason not to do these kinds of films again rather than a triumphant example of why we should have more.
The reality is the odds were stacked against The 355 from the beginning, not because of its cast — legitimately the film’s lone bright light — but the lack of interest in studio action films (or any sort of adult oriented studio film).
Every so often a really slick example of the genre like John Wick or anything David Leitch works on will get some attention in a fractured audience, but The 355 is not one of those. Nor does it have anything else to generate an identity with.
The characters (from Bek Smith and Theresa Rebeck, and thoroughly rewritten by director Simon Kinberg) are the kind of thinly-defined caricatures that have never been strangers to these kinds of films. Mace (Jessica Chastain) is a driven professional looking to clear her name, Marie (Diane Kruger) is the loner who doesn’t trust anyway, Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) is the hacker, etc., etc.
There are glimpses into their personal lives, creating a semblance of an actual person behind the cliché’s but they are fleeting, primarily setup for contrived plot twists in an overly convoluted plot.
The 355 (a reference, explained late in the film, to George Washington’s spy who was never known but essential to the Revolutionary War) are brought together to find a MacGuffin so vague and pointless Hitchcock could only have dreamed of it – a box that can somehow instantly hack anything, anywhere.
With every government and black-market arms dealer and terrorist looking for it, Mace and her colleagues decide to band together rather than compete in order to keep the device out of the wrong hands, only to discover there may be no right hands for it. Somewhere within all of the wheeler dealing, the point of the MacGuffin has been lost.
Its specifics don’t matter because it is a device to get to know the characters struggling over it. When those elements are lost (or at best superficially explained), all that is left is the box they are chasing after without the realization that it is empty. The 355 has understood none of that and can only follow the forms.
Which could be fine. Action movies have always been an experiment in form over function and testament that good enough form can be good enough. Give me beautiful production design, elegant camera work and crisply-edited action beats and I will give you a pass on everything else.
Unfortunately, The 355 has none of that to offer. With no interesting characters or story beats to hang onto, Kinberg has put all of his eggs into the action basket and they have broken.
The set pieces are slow, plodding and dull with bad choreography and bad editing. Nothing about them is exciting or interesting, and there’s not much without them.
Everyone is trying so hard. Really, really hard. Chastain and Cruz do excellent work with the closest to defined characters, especially Cruz’s untrained psychologist stuck in a mission gone bad.
And when the group finally gets a chance to gel together they do have real chemistry apart from Fan Bingbing, who appears very late in the game. The effort drips from the screen everywhere except where it matters most.
An action movie with a bland story and generic characters isn’t the worst thing in the world; in some ways it’s the quintessential form of the genre.
An action movie with a bland story, generic characters and weak set pieces, however, has no reason to exist and no reason for anyone to watch it.