THE 355

Producers: Jessica Chastain, Kelly Carmichael and Simon Kinberg   Director: Simon Kinberg   Screenplay: Theresa Rebeck and Simon Kinberg   Cast: Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, Diane Kruger, Lupita Nyong’o, Édgar Ramírez, Sebastian Stan, Jason Flemyng, Sylvester Groth, John Douglas Thompson, Leo Starr, Jason Wong, Hiten Patel, Emilio Insolera and Oleg Kricunov    Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade: C-

There was a time when female-centric action movies were rare enough to get by on that fact alone, but that time is long past, and more than the avalanche of clichés served up by “The 355” (titled after the code name of a female spy in the American Revolution) is now required to make one worth wasting your time on.  Not even an ensemble of strong actresses is enough to seal the deal: there have already been three “Charlie’s Angels” pictures, for heaven’s sake, and they were fun, or at least tried to be.

That can’t be said of Simon Kinberg’s theoretically original picture—his second directorial effort after “Dark Phoenix,” a big-budget misfire that brought the long-running “X-Men” franchise to an ignominious end.  (He’d previously had a much more successful career as a writer and producer.)  The script he and Theresa Rebeck have concocted has moments intended to be humorous, but for the most part it’s drearily dour and tediously serious.

The MacGuffin driving the plot is excruciatingly familiar—some sort of software program that can hack into any online system and manipulate it at will.  (The example we’re given is when it’s used to send a half-dozen airliners to fiery crashes.)  All we’re told about its origin is that it was devised by a guy in the service of a Colombian drug lord, who intends to sell it to a generically evil arms dealer (Jason Flemyng).  The deal is interrupted by Colombian Special Forces, but one of the commandos, Luis Rojas (Édgar Ramírez), decides to abscond with the device and put it on the market himself. 

Not fully understanding its value, however, he offers it at a bargain price to the CIA, leading agency chief Larry Marks (John Douglas Thompson) to assign top operatives Mason “Mace” Browne (Jessica Chastain) and hot-dog Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) to pose as young marrieds in Paris to trade the cash for the program.  But the transfer is stymied by an interloper who’s eventually revealed to be Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger), a German BND agent.  Marks informs Mace that Nick died chasing Ramírez, and suggests she pursue the killer—and the device—on her own.  Marie’s superior (Sylvester Groth), who has championed her despite the fact that her father passed secrets to the Russians, keeps her on the case as well. 

Meanwhile Mace recruits Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), a former MI6 agent and computer whiz, to join her in tracking down Ramírez, and the Colombian government has enlisted Graciela (Penélope Cruz), a psychologist, to make contact with her friend Luis and convince him to return home with the program.  After Luis is killed and the device stolen, all four women agree to join forces to complete the mission.

Thus begins a series of chases, hand-to-hand fights, gun battles and explosions that take the group to Morocco and ultimately to Shanghai, where, in another predictable plot turn, they get all dolled up to infiltrate a ritzy auction where the gizmo is to be sold at an astronomical price.  There they encounter a fifth formidable female in Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing), the auctioneer who turns out to be in the same line of work as they are.  You didn’t really think the makers were going to leave out representation for the world’s largest film market, did you?

There are some twists that are intended to be surprising but aren’t very, a few extremely dumb decisions on the part of one member of the team and—inevitably—some heroines-in-jeopardy moments.  There are also a considerable number of deaths, most of people who deserve to be offed but some of purely secondary folks who are treated as unfortunate, but necessary collateral damage.  All that seems to matter to Rebeck and Kinberg is that the five stars survive, however many bullets they have to dodge, or almost dodge, to do so. 

“The 355” is efficiently made from a technical standpoint, especially when one considers its less-than-astronomical budget.  The location and sets are impressive, thanks to production designer Simon Elliott, Stephanie Collie’s costumes are nice (especially in that auction sequence), and Tim Maurice-Jones’ cinematography has an elegant sheen—although the choreography of the action sequences is mostly uninspired, both in conception and execution, and Maurice-Jones can’t do much to enliven them.  They also aren’t treated especially well by editors John Gilbert and Lee Smith, who often have to shuffle between different fights and chases than are happening simultaneously, diluting the impact of each.  Tom Holkenberg’s score is busy but formulaic, while the visual effects overseen by Keith Devlin are okay without being especially eye-catching.

The majority of the stars are surprisingly pallid, a result of the rote characterizations they’ve been saddled with (Bingbing’s inscrutability might make you wince), though Chastain’s Mace is given some material that’s meant to endow her with depth, but only makes her seem weak.  The most successful of the bunch is definitely Cruz, who benefits from the fact that Graciela is an ordinary person, not some sort of super-woman, and so can give her more simply human qualities—until, of course, she shows that she’s capable of pulling a trigger, too.  All the men in the cast give perfunctory performances befitting their stock characters, with Stan the most irritating of the bunch.

“The 355” joins the ranks of recent action movies that follow all-too-familiar patterns and substitute mayhem for imagination and genuine excitement.  And the fact that its kick-ass protagonists are women is no compensation.