The 355

(**1/2)

Need a break from COVID mania and winter melancholia? A dose of pure escapism may help. For 122 minutes this often generic but surprisingly engaging espionage action/thriller may take your mind off your troubles. 

You’ll suspend belief for James Bond and all his improbable stunts. You’re perfectly OK with Shang-Chi fighting a dozen men at time when that’s really impossible. So, show some respect for the five petite women in this adrenaline-rush who kick ass like MMA champs. Is it plausible? No. Fun to watch? Yes. Part of the captivation is the script by Theresa Rebeck (TV’s Smash and NYPD Blue) and writer/director Simon Kinberg. They spin a tale full of intrigue, seasoned with enough plot twists and betrayals to keep you guessing and guessing until the mayhem careens to false ending after false ending. Normally this kind of contrivance is folly. Here, it takes attention away from the film’s more derivative elements.  

Director Kinberg’s filmography is impressive: Producer of Deadpool and The Martian. Writer for Mr.  and Mrs. Smith and X-Men: Apocalypse. His only previous feature film direction was on X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Now, tasked with guiding a cast and crew and choreographing action scenes it’s obvious he’s still working out some kinks. It’s most notable when the kinetic movement dies down and the four or five heroines just sit and talk. E.g., after a small victory, the women have drinks at a bar and converse, way too much. Other misguided exposition-heavy scenes flounder too. A cleverer director would always give the ensemble a “bit of business” to do. As they talked, they’d load guns, demolish a room, or make cookies—something to keep the viewer’s attention off the film’s shortcomings. Sitting idly is a no-no.  

Some nutjob has invented a data key drive the size of a mini-iPhone that can remotely down a plane, hack computers and destroy the world bit by it. Mace’s (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) job as a CIA agent is to buy and confiscate the device. As is said, “…the enemy is invisible like ghosts … they can destabilize entire countries from the simple reach of their keyboards.” She and fellow agent Nick (Sebastian Stan) arrange a lunchtime rendezvous at an outdoor Parisian café. It’s a simple cash for weapon pickup with Luis (Édgar Ramirez, Carlos), a rogue operative. Nothing goes right. Nothing. They and others are in hot pursuit of a mechanism that can wreak precision havoc. The chase starts in Europe, heads to Morocco and then Shanghai. Find the deadly gadget before time runs out or—ya-da-ya-da-ya-da…

In so many action films, if the good guys don’t win the world will be annihilated. In this instance, impending horrific chaos will be as selective as a surgeon’s scalpel. Determining who is zooming who and where the plot will go next is paradoxically predictable and unpredictable. International locations traveled by a multicultural cast add dimension. Toss into the mix a deadly German BND agent (Diane Kruger, In the Fade), an ex-British MI6 cyber tech head (Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave), a Colombian psychologist (Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers) and a mysterious Chinese saboteur (Bingbing Fan, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and the female casting is tight. Add some cranky evil villains (Jason Flemyng, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Pablo Scola, The Queen’s Gambit) who are eager to kill, and the good fight is on. FYI Kruger is the most convincing, Nyong’o the most alert, Cruz is stiff at first, but then finds her strength when her character becomes angry, scared and sad. Fan has the proper amount of mystery and Chastain is quite able as the ringleader.

Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones is best at filming the gorgeous location shots, almost as good with the combat sequences and knows how to light the lavish interior sets. Production designer Simon Elliott, art director Jack Berk and set decorator Anna-Lynch Robinson make all the props, hotel rooms, boudoirs, offices, etc. look just right. Stephanie Collie’s costumes exhibit a good color sense and a contemporary style that flatters the beautiful women. Producer/musician/composer Junkie XL’s (Mad Max Fury Road) driving musical score turns the mayhem up several decibels. The only scenes that drag are the slow aforementioned dramatic ones, otherwise editors John Gilbert (Hacksaw Ridge) and Lee Smith (Dunkirk) give the footage a steady manic pace.

Yes, some of this movie just doesn’t gel, like a white woman walking through a medina in Morocco without being stared at. Never happens. Or a woman entering a men’s hammam (Muslim steam room) nonchalantly.  Never happens. Some action scenes look hopelessly nondescript too, but you’ll get over it. In a theater those transgression may matter. But when this film hits a streaming service or VOD it won’t. Viewers will be stuck to their sofas and skip bathroom breaks for two hours and two minutes. 

Like The 355 for what it is. Not for what it isn’t. Escape into it and enjoy the performances of five skilled international female actors who bring it.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyktpXSvjZE

In theaters now.   
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com and BlackPressUSA.com