From left to right, Diane Kruger, Jessica Chastain and Lupita Nyong'o star in "The 355." Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 6 (UPI) -- Genre movies can get away with revisiting a lot of familiar territory. A spy movie with a dangerous mcguffin, a frame up, double agents and betrayals is all well and good if the execution is fun. The 355 is afraid to have fun with its story, but it should be embarrassed to take a rote formula so seriously.
Mace (Jessica Chastain) is a CIA agent on a mission to recover a drive with the mechanism to control technology and, for example, bring planes down from midair. German BND agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger) intercepts it before her, leading the CIA to investigate Mace. So Mace teams up with retired British agent Khadija (Lupita Nyong'o) to recover the drive and clear her name.
The 355 spends a good 40-some minutes setting up the chess pieces, introducing each character and their interaction. This includes Dr. Rivera (Penelope Cruz), the therapist of the thief (Edgar Ramirez), who stole the drive in the first place, and Chinese agent Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing). Reluctantly, they all team up to keep the drive out of enemy hands.
In the last 20 years of action movies, exploring the toll being a spy takes on heroes has become its own cliche. The angst of Jason Bourne permeated the Daniel Craig James Bond films. Beyond those, there isn't much fertile creative ground in movies saying, "Yeah, it's hard for spies to have families and violence is sad." Mr. and Mrs. Smith even made that premise a comedy.
By 2022, all it adds to The 355 is a lot of extra time with the heroes being depressed. This could have been a serviceable action fest at a lean 90 minutes, but watching our heroes mope doesn't endear the audience to them. The closest The 355 comes to letting the women have fun is when they each share war stories about their respective organizations. Even that is portrayed as a dour moment of bonding over how lousy each of their lives are.
Mace also expresses very cliched sentiments about modern espionage. She says in the Cold War or War on Terror, we knew who the bad guys were. Modern villains are ghosts who can destabilize technology. The Bond franchise has wrestled with this ever since 1995's Goldeneye. It's an old take, one which plenty of movies before The 355 proved false because there are still bad guys we need action heroes to conquer.
Action fans will forgive a lot if an action movie delivers excitement. Unfortunately, The 355 also reflects the Bourne style of making the most thrilling stunts look taxing and exhausting. The handheld camera and choppy editing is bad enough, but what really makes it intolerable is the zooming in and out within a single shot.
Otherwise, it looks like The 355 staged effective chases and fights with clear objectives. You know who Mace is chasing, where they're running and the sense of the geography of their pursuit. Credit to Chastian for learning to fight, perhaps building on skills she learned for Ava. Her co-stars perform physical feats too.
It's a shame the tone of the movie does not celebrate how awesome they are. At least we still have fun action movies like Mission: Impossible, John Wick and Furiosa to look forward to.
The 355 opens Friday in theaters.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.