No one knows the woman’s real name; her identity was purposefully kept secret. But she went by the handle “Agent 355,” serving under George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Some scholars believe this national woman of mystery was the code name of Anna Strong, the wife of a militia leader. Others speculate that it was a New York socialite who helped aid and abet the Culper Ring, Washington’s elite network of spies. Regardless, Agent 355 is a legend among intelligence wonks and armchair espionage experts. Her ability to clandestinely communicate information back to her military liaisons helped liberate a number of colonies from tyrannical rule. Take that, Mata Hari!
Jessica Chastain mentions some of this cloak-and-dagger arcana near the very end of The 355, long after we’ve seen her C.I.A. operative punch and kick and run and jump and shoot a shit-ton of gun-toting thugs in the name of protecting the world from World War III. It’s a nice indicator to the general public as to why the movie we’ve been watching for almost two hours, the one with international stars doing their best don’t-fuck-with-us stares on the poster, is saddled with a number for a title. Her ragtag group of female secret agents — well, one of them is quick to tell us she’s not an agent, she’s a therapist, but still — are about to confront a bad guy in their midst, “guy” being as much a key word as “bad.” They’re tired of having their womanhood be used as a tool against them, whether by superiors, colleagues, or slimy villains. They collectively call themselves “the 355,” in honor of that O.G. lady spy. The community of global weapons dealers, wealthy no-good-niks and the patriarchy may now start trembling in fear.
And in a just world, audience members would be given college credit for that U.S. History tidbit of information, so that at least they’d get one thing out of this attempt to kickstart a blockbuster series. There are a host of good intentions and corrective measures fueling The 355, coming from someone who’s been as much of an activist as an actor. Chastain’s not only the ass-kicker-in-chief here, her company Freckle Films is producing it, and the Zero Dark Thirty star has long been a vocal supporter of gender parity and equity in the film industry. She originally brought up the concept of a band of XX-chromosome 007s to director Simon Kinberg when the two of them worked together on 2019’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and we wholeheartedly apologize for reminding you that film exists while filling in some of this action movie’s backstory. The end result, however, feels more than a little loosely cobbled together, conceptually or otherwise. Yes, Chastain makes for a kinetic action hero, as do a few of her co-stars, and she’s someone who most assuredly puts her money where her mouth is. But no, this is not the all-female Bond franchise you’re looking for.
A cyber weapon, designed to shut down or disrupt everything from a plane’s guidance software to a big-city electrical grid, gets swiped by a Colombian agent (Edgar Ramírez) during a raid on a drug lord’s mansion. Two C.I.A. field officers, Mason “Mace” Browne (Chastain) and her partner, Todd (Sebastian Stan), are dispatched to Paris to rendezvous with the gentleman, as he’s keen to offload the device in exchange for money and protection. Somewhat inexplicably, Graciela (Penélope Cruz), an analyst for Colombia’s intelligence service — again, she will continually insist, she’s not an agent but a therapist! — shows up to offer her countryman counsel. Also on the seller’s trail: Marie Schmidt (Inglourious Basterds‘ Diane Kruger), a Berlin-based BND operative with a huge chip on her shoulder — someone concisely summed up by another character as “demolitions, disobedience, demotions.”
After the hand-off devolves into a long chase through the urban obstacle courses of the City of Light, Todd goes M.I.A. Then Mace heads to the U.K. and looks up an old friend/former MI6 operative named Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), who now lectures on cyberterrorism. She enlists her old pal to help her locate the mark, her missing partner, and the mystery German who messed up their plans. Many spy-versus-spy shenanigans and the sound of silencers commence. Eventually, the four women band together, hand the contraband over to Mace’s boss, and go have a beer. Except there are a whole host of other enemies who about to enter their orbit….
The alpha with a grudge, the tech expert, the loose cannon, the layperson who rises to the occasion — you’ve got a classic crew of archetypes, and some talented actors to play them. You’ve also got a genre with a dodgy track record regarding female characters that’s being intriguingly tweaked to address real-world misogyny while still finding time to let its heroes glamor-vamp it up. The fact that the script, co-written by Kinberg, Therese Rebeck, and Bek Smith, can be clumsy at times — having a megalomaniacal mastermind insult a homme fatale by saying “you got beat by a bunch of girls” is on-brand if not exactly eloquent — doesn’t mean the central idea isn’t sound. (Slightly better: When one of the agents says that James Bond never had to deal with the shit they have to deal with, another points out that “James Bond always ends up alone.”)
But what you end up with is merely another series of interchangeable bits of half-baked mayhem and a lot of loud noises substituting for pacing, a sense of conflict, and tension. When Bingbing Fan shows up late in the game, all the better to attract the attention of lucrative overseas markets, the big takeaway is, well, here’s another well-known performer who also, frankly, deserves better. There’s so much wasted potential here, so little sense of how to get across a notion of solidarity in the face of catastrophic danger, and sexism, not in that order. Once we get past the climax of the 355’s impossible mission, there’s a suggestion that this could just be the beginning of many more future Mace & Co. adventures. If this is the shape of things to come, however, they might want to consider retiring that number now.