In October of 2014, “John Wick” was released in theaters and since then, the action genre has never been the same. That’s certainly not to say that there hadn’t been good action films pre-“Wick,” but when the franchise arrived it set the unavoidable bar in which the genre would be measured.
Since then, films like “Atomic Blonde” and “Nobody” have shown what the “Wick” formula can look like when applied correctly, but it’s also very easy to spot when a film is struggling to overcome that benchmark. There’s a difference in the filmmaking that is resonant – when a film is too paint-by-numbers, the audience has no reason to invest in the story or the characters.
In “The 355,” those warning signs appear early and often, as it fails to live up to the new standard of action film.
The first issue, among many, comes with its painfully ordinary plot. After a top-secret weapon falls into the wrong hands, secret agents from around the world must team up to save the day. To no one’s surprise, the agents all check the stereotypical character boxes.
There’s Mace Browne (Jessica Chastain), a wild card CIA agent, Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), a former MI6 agent and computer ace, the odd-one-out in rival German BND agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger), and Graciela (Penélope Cruz) a Colombian DNI agent and psychologist.
All the while, the women must stay a step ahead of a mysterious Chinese agent (Fan Bingbing) tracking the new team’s every move.
Director Simon Kinberg (“X-Men: Dark Phoenix”), who also shares a co-writer credit as well, does absolutely nothing with one of the most talented casts in recent memory. There is no flair or impressive stunt work, instead “The 355” feels like an episode of a procedural television show at times. There are zero surprises, as the so-called “twists and turns” are exactly what you would expect if you’ve ever seen anything spy-related. Even the film’s climactic battle against the big bad – which does boast the film’s best look at stunt work and action – is completely undercut by the utter lack of anything cinematic. There is simply nothing in “The 355” resonates.
It’s a big deal to put four of the biggest female names in the same film together, but instead of following that line of rule-breaking, they are put into the same cookie-cutter action film we’ve seen a million times. The same endless stream of thugs at the same Middle East market and exotic jungle. There is no attempt at deconstructing the genre or creating a fresh take.
Not to be undone by the underwhelming writing and direction, the cast featuring Chastain, Kruger, Nyong’o and Cruz truly try to make this less-than-compelling story something watchable. The unfortunate outcome doesn’t stop them from putting in some pretty solid work, all things considered. They are all committed to their roles and make the best of some pretty heinous lines. It should also be noted that Sebastian Stan and Edgar Ramírez are present as well, but wasted in undercooked roles.
Simply put, the four leads deserve better. Put these women together, and it’s hard to imagine the project not working. But somehow, “The 355” has achieved the improbable.
If the cast ever reassembles for a different film or franchise, I’ll be there.
“The 355” is now playing in theaters.
Film critic and member of the NCFCA and SEFCA