Simon Kinberg has a lot to make up for. His directorial debut, Dark Phoenix, was the worst of the wildly inconsistent X-Men movies, a blend of faux feminism, disinterested actors, and truly atrocious writing that bombed on every front. Somehow, though, he was able to secure another directing job and got back Dark Phoenix star Jessica Chastain.
If that’s not enough to make you yell “why????”, The 355 also carries over the kind of strident, proud brand of feminism that leads to lines like “The women are always saving the men around here. You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women.” I mean, ugh, thanks for pandering, I guess?
The only sign in this follow-up of shakiness in confidence is his pairing with screenwriters Theresa Rebeck and Bek Smith. Other than that, you’re left to hope that Kinberg learned from his mistakes, a tenuous bet for a guy that didn’t have much time to lick his wounds before getting a second chance.
So The 355. It’s the star-studded action movie that’s advertised, complete with fancy outfits, gunplay, and globe-trotting. But like Kinberg’s previous film, the promising pieces fall flat within uninspired execution.
To its benefit, it has the kind of sturdy plot that can’t go too wrong. In its opening scene a computer weapon capable of mass destruction is established and, of course, falls into the wrong hands. Governments from around the world send agents to secure it, with America’s Mace (Chastain) and Germany’s Marie (Diane Kruger) hot on its tail. After getting in each other’s way a few too many times, they realize that working together gives them the best chance to succeed. The UK’s Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) ends up providing expert tech skills, Columbia’s Graciela (Penélope Cruz) is a psychologist who stumbles into helping the experienced team, and China’s Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan) swoops in to provide much-needed support. It’s a team that should be able to save the world without breaking a sweat, but unexpected connections and deep baggage gets in the way.
When the film leans into its twisty plot, it glides along with unremarkable but sustainable ease. Getting the computer program gives the team a singular goal, and they hop from location to location quickly as they track it across the world. It’s when the film tries to attach details to this rudimentary plot that things get shaky.
Mace is the main character of the assemblage, and onto her Kinberg and the rest of the writing team place their half-hearted themes. Loneliness, distrust, and all the usual tough exterior but sad inside spy traits are given lip service, but they’re never developed or allowed to breathe enough to feel like a naturally integrated part of the character. Kruger’s Marie gets much the same treatment (one of many unnecessary overlaps that extend the runtime of the film), and given what we know about the ability of both she and Chastain to communicate complex emotions quickly, it’s only logical to pin their flatness on subpar writing.
Nyong’o, unsurprisingly, walks away with the fewest blemishes on her resume, as she’s written as a solid supporting character without any underdeveloped baggage. This allows her to traipsize through the various set pieces with a lightness that the rest of the film should match, but alas, Kinberg wants what should be a light romp to have a feminist overtone he can’t help but scream about.
Just as ill-conceived is the film’s action, which involves so much gunplay and death that they must frantically cut around what’s happening until it’s indiscernible to get the ratings they want. It’s the kind of poorly conceived, lazy staged action that brings no thrills, and while you would think an action movie with boring action would be its greatest flaw, it’s not.
Let’s talk about the hottest aspect of filmmaking: the lighting. Nothing gives away a shoddily made film like bad lighting, which here ranges from too bright for the vibrant reds in a scene, too dark to luxuriate in a velvet jumpsuit, and just plain flat. The setups are so characterless that they give every location a dull sameness that sucks the pleasure out of its globe-trotting premise. And yes, bad lighting is a detriment to the film as a whole, but more damning is the fact that you’re noting the bad lighting. That means the rest of the movie isn’t interesting enough to distract you from the lighting, which, yikes.
There’s also an instance of such terrible blocking that Kruger’s hand covers Nyong’o’s face while Nyong’o is talking. And they left it in the movie! Was there not a better take? Did no one mention that Kruger’s fuzzy hand lifting a beer would get between Nyong’o and the camera with this setup?
Many questions come from this small mistake, but I think the answer to all of them is that no one cared. The 355 is an unambitious action film, and no one involved did much to make it interesting. There is some fun to be had with this cast, but at the end of the day, there’s so many other, better things to be doing with your time.
Release: now available in theaters
Director: Simon Kinberg
Writers: Simon Kinberg, Theresa Rebeck, Bek Smith
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Bingbing Fan, and Sebastian Stan