The worst thing a film can do is squander what it's got going for it. In The 355, a blockbuster espionage action-thriller (now showing in theaters), it has two solid things at play: its strong ensemble cast and an interesting musical composition. Those two things should be enough to save even the clumsiest direction (let's put a pin in that), but no. God no. I was so bored.
Woefully, I have to report that The 355 never feels all that thrilling or inventive, especially when it needs to be. It's a regrettable, unimaginative misfire doomed by its direction and more than two-hour runtime.
The story, if such a mishmash of narrative excuses to go on a plodding globe-trotting journey can even be called that, is centered around a group of agents who must come together to stop a global catastrophe. There is Mace (Jessica Chastain), Marie (Diane Kruger), and Khadijah (Lupita Nyong'o), who make up the central team. There is also Graciela (Penélope Cruz), a therapist who gets caught up in the mix, and the mysterious Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing), whose role is mainly to pull the strings behind the scenes.
Their mission is to find a device that can hack into literally anything, causing everything from massive blackouts to planes falling out of the sky. In an early scene, a generic drug kingpin gives us an introduction to the technology. He informs us that his son tells him “this is the new drug: technology.” He says this with complete seriousness and it's deeply funny, especially when you see the device, which is basically a tiny hard drive with computer chips seen through its transparent shell. It looks like the deconstructed parts of the TI-84 graphing calculator you were required to have in high school. Yes, what new technology! What a drug!
Mace and her partner, both in spying and in love, Nick (Sebastian Stan), initially try to track the device down. However, through a mixup, it falls into the wrong hands, leaving Nick missing in action—which is a relief. The best I can describe Stan's one-note performance is that he is a persistently annoying man who thinks he's charming. (Spoiler: he isn’t.) Mace will now have to go off the grid with her new team since apparently there's corruption everywhere. Though not within their team, of course, as they’re the good spies doing mass surveillance and meddling in other countries.
It's a generic story you've seen countless times, worsened by poorly constructed action sequences. Honestly, “poorly constructed” might be a euphemism. Let’s try: so flimsy and lacking in confidence that the best action scene is one that happens in darkness. Yes, the most standout part of the film is the one that you don’t actually see and lasts for five seconds.
An early chase sequence set in Paris reveals that the film relies on way too many quick cuts and haphazard camera work, even for the simplest of actions, in an attempt to create a little bit of excitement. It left me feeling like I was having flashbacks to this:
Yes, we needed ~thirteen cuts for Liam Neeson to jump over a fence. Unforgettable.
The 355 isn't Neeson-over-a-fence bad, but it's a bad sign that this is my closest reference point.
Eventually, the film settles down and focuses, but only slightly. The team must go to various locations searching for the device, though there is no life or excitement in any of them. A market scene, in particular, feels like a poorly disguised set that makes the fake neighborhoods that consistently pretend to be big cities on screen look like artistic masterworks. It breaks any sense of immersion or investment, leaving you mostly just wondering why Jessica Chastain is wearing such a silly hat. The locations feel like unflattering approximations of generically foreign locations that
It is hard to think of a film in recent memory that had such a talented cast who ended up being completely let down by the lack of talent behind the camera. In a surprisingly slick auction scene near the end, Nyong'o does shine. It's her character Khadijah who is the one orchestrating the operation, and the Academy Award-winning Nyong'o is expectedly convincing in the role. The film should've just let its actors act in these moments. Instead, it has no patience and rushes to the next middling action sequence. Sigh. Whatever. Moving on.
Another positive: Junkie XL's score, which sounds like it has the potential to be one of the better action scores of recent memory. Seriously, it is by his pulsing tones that you are drawn into some sequences that begin to feel thrilling. It makes you feel locked in whenever you hear it. It nearly saves a few scenes, but it mostly made me wish I was watching Mad Max: Fury Road, a better movie that he also scored with a more talented director.
These positives are too fleeting to make up for the rest of the film. Simon Kinberg's direction is clumsy and uncertain and somehow makes his earlier work in The Dark Phoenix look competent. In this, there is absolutely no sense of space or orientation about where characters are in relation to each other. It feels disorienting without purpose, meant to confuse rather than amaze. Shooting action is a skill, and Kinberg clearly doesn’t have that skill. He just isn't up to the task, in writing or directing, and the film suffers greatly for it.
No matter how much the cast tries to give it their all, they just can't overcome the film's hurdles. Like Neeson jumping over a fence, they try to help the film leap over the fact that it's a January release being dumped in theaters with poor direction dragging it down. And, like Neeson, it ultimately falls directly on its face.
Unfortunately for all of us, as if enduring this one wasn’t enough, the film seems to hint at a sequel. One can only hope that, if that miraculously does happen, they bring in someone, anyone, else to oversee it.
You can see The 355 in theaters now.