Probably the best Simon Kinberg’s fledgling directorial “career” can hope for is that audiences who wouldn’t touch his work on the end of a bargepole – common-sensically, that’s everyone – should be exposed or directed to it via artificial means. Consequently, early January’s conspirasphere rumour must have seemed like a godsend. This claimed no theatres in the US – or anywhere – would be allowing bookings beyond January 6, barring this opus, on account of some massive imminent Truther announcement taking place. For a few days, there was a spike of interest in just why it should be that The 355 was singled out for attention. Alas for Kinberg, this did not translate into ticket sales. Mostly because the movie so clearly sucked.
Anyone hoping the title promised more Zack Snyder Spartan action was going to be resoundingly out of luck. Rather, The 355 references the code name of a female spy during the American Revolution (See? They were progressive back then too). Purportedly, the number, applied by American Revolutionary War spy network the Culper Ring, could be decrypted to mean “lady” (others suggest the code number referred to network member Anna Smith Strong). These codes may simply have been rather prosaic in application – Washington was 711 – although gematria lovers were doubtless like pigs in shit when the rumour surfaced (my superficial response to the numbers is that they add up to 13, the Death card in tarot).
If the title’s of indeterminate importance, a sift through The 355’s content may unearth relevant subject matter. Obviously, this is an all-female spy movie, so it’s playing the doctrinally stamped progressive card, but there’s hardly anything ground breaking there, regardless of Jessica Chastain’s – the project’s originator – empty puffery. That these spies hail from diverse nations with diverse agendas – some of them antagonistic – who unite in the name of a greater cause may, however, be construed as an indication of the global puppetry behind nominal sabre-rattling. The sort of thing that’s miraculously dropped when it comes time to unfold a plandemic (and is swiftly taken up again when that narrative proves unsustainable).
The MacGuffin, meanwhile, turns out to be a device that “can get into any closed system on the planet”. With it, one can “control and destabilise entire city grids, nuclear facilities, world markets, anything from a plane in the sky to the phone in your pocket”. It could start WWIII: “The war would be over before we could even fight back”. So, the kind of thing you’d see in a Mission: Impossible plot – Chris McQuarrie is probably wailing and gnashing his teeth – but also something that may resonate with anyone hoping the shutting down of the Internet for ten days is still happening, less as a harbinger of a Schwab-induced great reset than the good guys announcing they’re holding the reins. Of course, anyone accessing anything on the net on a whim this way could, indeed, initiate an actual great reset, such that you’d have nothing and be happy, all in the blink of an eye.
Chastain was “inspired” to make a spy movie with female leads, one like M:I or Bond, having observed the gaping hole in the market not previously filled by the likes of Atomic Blonde, Charlie’s Angels, Black Widow, Spy, Mr & Mrs Smith, Wanted, Red Sparrow, Ecks vs. Sever (if you must), Salt, La Femme Nikita, Point of No Return, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Hanna, Kate and Anna. This thunderbolt struck her on the set of Dark Phoenix, where such creative juices were doubtless in short supply, such that she went and suggested her sterling notion to its first-time director Kinberg, an old hand at espionage (XXX: State of the Union, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, This Means War) but mostly a writer of X-Men movies.
It was at this stage that Chastain’s already questionable nous entirely deserted her, as she sanctioned Kinberg to direct the movie too. Who knows, maybe he inspired confidence on set? Maybe it was only later, when all those reshoots failed to salvage the movie and his hot mess became even hotter, that cold feet were felt. The point is, Chastain would have been advised to bail once she saw Kinberg was in no way an action director, and once the reviews savaged Dark Phoenix, yet she kept The 355 going on its projected course (I didn’t think Dark Phoenix was that bad, but one thing it wasn’t was encouragingly directed).
It should be no surprise, then, that The 355 gives the impression Kinberg takes notes from the likes of other writer-turned-directors Akiva Goldsman and Mark Steven Johnson. One might charitably suggest he isn’t attempting to disguise his rudimentary grasp of film grammar by resorting to over-editing, but mostly, the movie resembles an early ’90s, straight-to-video affair. Yes, there’s a rare scene where he engages with his material, but it isn’t an action one; the auction of the device is actually quite involving, and Nick (Sebastian Stan) having Mace’s Angels’ nearest and dearest executed is commendably unvarnished… until Kinberg cops out and has the girls sacrifice their utilitarian principles. Because the audience would never forgive you if you kill Penélope Cruz’s kid, now would they?
Of whom, Cruz’s Graciela is an awful mother anyway, compelling her offspring to lather themselves with hand sanitiser and scoff dairy-free ice cream. She’s also Colombian, a casting decision that caused a Twitter storm (or some such teapot) and elicited a sort-of grovelling non-apology from Chastain. Quite why she and Kinberg didn’t cast an actual therapist working for Colombia’s National Intelligence Directorate too, I have no idea.
Stan plays the old “You thought the good guy was killed early on, but here he is again and he’s a villain” character. The kind of telegraphed “twist” evidencing that Kinberg the writer is every bit as deadly as Kinberg the director (there’s a dreadful piece of staging/editing later, when Diane Kruger’s German Federal Intelligence Service agent Marie exclaims of the device “I’ve got it” several times, standing exposed in the middle of a room, just asking to get shot seconds later, and lo and behold…) Jason Flemyng, who variously looks about seventy or as if he has undergone extensive plastic surgery, depending on the lighting, is Nick’s bad guy boss, but barely gets a look in.
None of the leads have any chemistry whatsoever, which is a bit of a drawback for a sisterly ensemble. Chastain, an Easter Island drag act, is the ostensible lead, as producer, and leaves you wondering who she, or her agent, or her distributor, thought she appealed to. It isn’t as if she has any hits to her name that would justify a $40/75m production. As an action heroine, she entirely fails to convince – she previously tried, also unsuccessfully, with Ava, so it may be a Charlize-envy bee in her bonnet – and rather puts one in mind of a slightly more youthful Esther Rantzen.
Cruz and Lupita Nyong’o – “I’m cyber intelligence” her MI6 agent Khadijah announces, which means she knows her way around a smart phone – at least aren’t attempting to persuade of action skillz. Fan Bingbing, doing her best Marc Almond as Ministry of State Security operative Lin Mi Sheng, gets a kick-ass scene, expectedly, but the only performer really giving it some persuasive grit or welly is late addition Kruger – replacing Marion Cotillard – who at times is so good, so formidable, she seems set to salvage Kinberg’s comatose direction singlehandedly.
The positive takeaway is we won’t be getting a The 356, as the picture tanked. Perhaps it should have been sold to Netflix, who would immediately have greenlit a sequel. Kinberg, most likely, will return to his keyboard, probably to re-emerge with a low-budget personal drama that also fails to do any business but at least gives him a lifeline as a director of non-action vehicles. Chastain is next hunting serial killer Eddie Redmayne (I always had my suspicions) in The Good Nurse. Cruz isn’t winning an Oscar for Parallel Mothers. Fan Bingbing is trying to stay out of the taxman’s bad books. Nyong’o is hopefully going to change agents. Kruger will remain perpetually underrated. And The 355. Even if it had been the only film to see in theatres after January 6, it still couldn’t have crawled back any credit.
First published by Now in Full Color on 05/02/22.