The 355

In theatres Jan. 7

The Plot:

Four women from different countries with spy agency experience join forces to save the world from cyber-catastrophe, the kind that would cause World War III. The action rockets from Columbia to Virginia to Paris to London to Shanghai on this lethal mission, as a mysterious woman tracks their moves.

KENT’S TAKE:

“The 355” should be called “The Ho-Hum” since this feature is defined by an inconsistent narrative, choppy editing and uninspired characters.

Mason “Mace” Browne (Jessica Chastain) is a smart, hard-nosed, CIA agent who struggles to play by the rules. When her best friend and fellow agent Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) is killed on a mission in Paris, Browne, when coaxed by her boss, decides to undertake a revenge mission in order to find Fowler’s killer.

Sounds pretty straight forward, but the execution of this revenge story is rife with clichéd dialogue and mediocre action giving it a “movie-of-the-week” feel.

I don’t understand why Hollywood struggles to make good films with strong female characters. It’s the same pitfall that filmmakers fall into when they try to make a character cool, either a character is cool or they aren’t. In this case, they simply need to write strong, interesting characters and put them in a good story and the fact that they are women would just work well. Instead, this narrative is poorly written making the characters stagnant. Their dialogue doesn’t propel anything, nor does it help define these women.

The cast is an international one with Penelope Cruz as psychologist Graciela, Lupita Nyong’o as former agent Khadijah Adiyeme, Bingbing Fan as agent Lin Mi Sheng and Diane Kruger as agent Marie Schmidt, but the fact that these women all come from different cultures and experiences makes no difference in the story – so why make it an international story?

The film seems rushed or forced as director Simon Kinberg uses some cheesy transitions to jump this story forward. The fight scenes are disappointing revealing a limited budget. In addition, in the climax, bullets are flying, punches are flying, kicks are flying, yet only the bad guys really get hurt.

There are a few positives to this story. The cast is a talented one and works hard to shore up their roles. Lupita Nyong’o is a standout. Her character, although secondary, leaves a lasting impression upon viewers.

Like the story itself, some of the twists in this film are predictable, but there are a few that will catch audiences, helping make the climax a bit more memorable.

George Washington had a female spy in his Culper Ring, she is referred to only as 355 in order to protect her identity. I imagine most of the actors wouldn’t mind being referenced as a number in the cast list of this disappointing thriller.

Lynn’s Take:

In the international spy game, girls can take a licking and keep on ticking – that’s the calling card of “The 355,” a wildly uneven full-throttle action thriller.

The concept here is that women can be lethal weapons and front action movies, just like Tom Cruise and Jason Statham. Their task is to outsmart mercenaries up to no good. Cue the propulsive music score by Tom Kolkenborg, aka “Junkie XL,” as we watch chases, shootouts, stick-fighting, and explosions just like a “John Wick” or “Jack Reacher.”

A quartet of top-shelf actresses unite for this rogue mission: two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, in full "Zero Dark Thirty" mode, as fiery CIA agent Mason “Mace” Browne; two Oscar winners, Lupita Nyong’o as crackerjack cyber-sleuth Khadijah, formerly M16, and Penelope Cruz as compassionate Graciela, a psychologist who works with DNI agents in Colombia; and Diane Kruger as cunning German operative Marie Schmidt of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, the foreign intelligence service.

They slip into their roles with ease, and genuinely develop a bond working together in a frantic race against the clock. Their action scenes are quite impressive – as is the editing of Oscar-winner John Gilbert.

The bold and brave mavericks show off sharp skills as they try to prevent a top-secret weapon -- a computer drive with a master key -- from falling into nefarious hands. They can do everything 007 and other secret agent boys can do while globe-trotting. The movie gets far more interesting when Bingbing Fan, as the mysterious Lin Mi Sheng, is added to their girl power grid. However, Sebastian Stan, as Mace’s CIA partner, is unconvincing.

Like Beyonce sang, girls can run the world – and co-writer-director Simon Kinberg seized upon the idea pitched by Chastain when he directed her in the worst “X-Men” movie sequel ever, “Dark Phoenix.” She wanted to see women get the rock-star action-goddess treatment and is one of the producers here.

“The 355” refers to the codename of an unidentified female spy in the American Revolution. (They tell us this fact far into the film).

Huzzah! Any time girls are shown on equal footing with the guys, it’s a good thing – even if it’s a pedestrian project. Last year’s “Gunpowder Milkshake” comes to mind, and the ruthless aspects of the superior “Widows” in 2018.

The plot is convoluted and often implausible, but the fight scenes are well-choreographed and are entertaining when they have the upper hand and slip out of harm’s way. The movie could have ended at least three different times, so it feels long at 2 hours and 4 minutes.

Comparisons to “Charlie’s Angels” for the 21st century are fair. The women are having such a good time kicking butt and getting names that it’s a shame that the formulaic plot devices slow it down.

Major characters shockingly get killed early, there are betrayals you see coming a mile away, and then of course we have the tough bosses and the clueless co-workers who are making bad assumptions (do these creaky tropes work anymore?).

And the main villain is a weak one -- a generic billionaire fueled by greed and power. We don’t ever know much about him, and he is as bland as those stock photos companies put in their frames to entice purchasers. I couldn’t find his name in the credits, that’s the impression he makes.

Kinberg has many producing and writing credits, but as a director, hasn’t exhibited much to get excited about – yet.

Two screenwriters, Theresa Rebeck – Emmy-nominated for TV work, with a long resume including “Law and Order” and “NYPD Blue,” and Bek Smith, joined Kinberg on the script. They pile on the cliches about the women not necessarily enjoying being lone wolves and trust issues. When protecting everyone from danger, it’s tough to have what people regard as a conventional lifestyle. Their pity parties are short-lived, though, because they like being Girl Bosses.

They leave the film open-ended for a sequel, just in case they want to get the band back together. The dream team would need a better script, but seeing them triumph in this long-delayed film is an OK escape during the dreary part of frosty winter.