Starring: Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz, Lupita nyong’o, Diane Kruger, Edgar Ramirez, Sebastian Stan, Bing Bing Fan, and Jason Flemyng.
Directed By: Simon Kinberg
Where I Watched It: Peacock
English Audio Description Available?: Yes
The Plot: May (Chastain) is a spy working for the United States that is sent on what seems to be an easy mission, but ends up getting her partner (Stan) killed, and sends her spiraling on a quest for vengeance and to stop the worlds criminals from getting their hands on a flash drive that has unlimited abilities to destroy the world. But first, she’s gonna have to assemble the Avengers, I mean, a gathering of women from various spy agencies all with the common goal.
What Works: My God, they went and did it. Peacock finally fixed a version of their app that allowed me to actually activate audio description. What a concept! And just in time for me to enjoy the sophomore directing effort from Simon Kinberg, who really needs to reevaluate his desire to direct.
The parts that work in this film are that Kinberg managed to assemble a really terrific cast, including three Oscar winners. That’s not a bad feat. And those actresses work overtime to keep what would otherwise be a bargain bin spy thriller from sinking into the deepest recesses of film hell. The script for this film is profoundly stupid, yet these actresses elevate it beyond what it should be capable of. They showed up 100%, and when the film requires the full range of emotion from them, they bring it just like they were working with Pedro Almodovar or Jordan Peele.
That’s not to say that all of the rest is complete garbage, but it isn’t what it wants to be. Because there was an effort to cast actors over action stars, that should indicate to you that this is far more an espionage based thriller than a non stop Jason Bourne style heart pumper. Does anything blow up? Sure. But there are also plenty of sequences where people just talk, and interactions that rely on intelligence and technology over brute force. The 355 can handle themselves in a fight, but they try to avoid it if they can.
What Doesn’t Work: Sorry for that little plot spoiler up top, but it is actually the catalyst for the rest of the film. It’s the moment where the film shifts gears, and it happens so early in the film, that it needed to be addressed.
Now that I’ve said that, Kinberg assumes he is far smarter than 99% of the world, which is why this film fails if not for it’s cast. I’m going deep into the spoilers here, because everything wrong with this film would qualify as a moderate to heavy spoiler, though I would argue that the film is so badly telegraphing to the audience in every way that none of these should be spoilers if you’ve ever read a book or watched a film before.
There was nothing that actually caught me off guard here. First, it’s lazy to have that scene where Nick is “killed off”, because the camera pulls away and you don’t see it. Never a good sign that the spy is actually dead, and isn’t just faking his death. Kinberg clearly thought he was being super clever, because when Nick resurfaces, it’s like a thousand mic drops. I can hear him saying “see what i did there? Gotcha!” No. no you didn’t. I think most people were heavily suspicious of the off camera death of one of our two leads at that point, and later when their boss says he confirmed the death himself, I didn’t assume the best for him, I just assumed there would be a conspiracy/cover up coming our way, and I got that exactly 100%.
The movie also was hurt by its own marketing campaign, which shows these ladies all teaming up to form the 355, so when Marie (Kruger) is introduced as an antagonist, and her and May fight, it’s just something we all know we have to get past so these two can work together. Same thing with how Cruz and Fan are recruited, as presumed enemies, that turn out to be friends. But the assumption and knowledge is that they will always reach this moment.
the flash drive with God mode capabilities that they keep chasing around feels like one of those bad guy things that’s been in a hundred movies before. There’s nothing original about it, except for that when the girls acquire the drive, finally, they don’t destroy it. They spend a great deal of time talking about how no one should have that kind of power and how deadly it is, and it’s just a flash drive. Just step on the damn thing, throw it in a microwave, or something. The fact that this thing isn’t destroyed immediately is insanely idiotic, and clearly only happens because the plot needs that drive alive so it can once again fall into the wrong hands, because its too soon for the movie to end.
The funny thing is, that after this second time around, when the girls do have the opportunity, one of them absolutely does crush it by stomping, showing how easy that was all along. Why wasn’t that done earlier? Just to prolong the film? Sometimes, when you’re willing to sacrifice the integrity of your story just to make the film longer, you end up doing a disservice to your finished project. The film is made worse by these incredibly smart women not being able to make the simplest of decisions, considering its the decision they make later anyway.
Then we have the awkward and clunky tie in to the title. At the end of the film, they briefly describe a story of how George Washington had a female spy who was so good no one knew her name, she was just known by her number. 355. Yes, that’s why the film is called this. It’s actually that stupid. It is quite evident that Simon Kinberg, clearly delusional, thought he landed on a gold mine, and would be making many sequels to his new spy franchise. What he forgot to do was make a sound script that didn’t treat its audience like they were too dumb to notice all these incredibly obvious choices.
The Blind Perspective: My first interaction with audio description on the Peacock service, thanks to an update, and I now know that I likely will never know who made the audio description for these movies. Shortly into the credits, and before anything was said about who made the audio description, i was violently ripped out and into a trailer for Salt. So if you liked The 355, you can watch the much better Angelina Jolie film Salt.
If you can ignore the marketing for the film, to which I have consistently been interjecting “we have a Hulk”, and just go with the flow of this espionage thriller, you will realize how few action sequences there are. However, the few that are there are well described, but this is more about the plot development and character building than it is non stop punching and kicking. Kinberg was trying to launch a franchise, and he needed to world build a lot apparently.
That being said, I do notice things that I don’t have an answer to. I am trying to figure out, for example, this scene where someone was breaking through a window in a surprise moment. The scene before is calm, so the window breaking is a. Catalyst for shocking change in the direction of the scene and the film. But, our description tells us that a man breaks through a window before it actually happens, and I think there’s even a beat where you are waiting for it to actually occur. This got me thinking about real moments in better films where carefully crafted surprise character deaths or jump scares are put in place, and if we are always getting the description ahead of the experience, aren’t we getting less of an experience than the visually angled, who would have only known about the break when it occurs, in the moment that was crafted?
Not that I think Simon Kinberg is a master of sleight of hand, where I fear telegraphing his surprises in advance ruins the film. He’s not, and that didn’t make the film any worse than it already was. But in other films, putting a description for a surprise moment, a twist of fate, or a jump scare could actually detract from a better director’s experience. It will be something I’m paying closer attention to in the future.
Like i said, I don’t have a clear cut answer or solution to this, but I’m feeling a gut instinct that this is not the best way.
Final Thoughts: So, if you look at this project, The 355, and we’re trying to come up with a grade for it. It’s not so much an action film as it is a spy thriller. There was a decision to cast real actresses over action stars, which traded out a lot of complicated fight sequences for more sequences driven by intelligence and technology. But at the core of this film is a really bad script, that its director never really seemed to realize just how fundamentally terrible it is. He presents plot twists that never land, because they are so obvious, and has rational and intelligent women making dumb character choices. So on one hand, the film doesn’t work, but on the other, there are redeemable qualities here. The cast is terrific. There isn’t one bad actor in this bunch. They elevate scenes I would have thought impossible to elevate. A lesser, cheaper cast would have made this incredibly dismal and a bargain bin film that is quickly forgotten. So I’m in the middle here. I can’t really outright recommend the film because it is bad, but it’s also kept entertaining enough, not by its director, but by the cast.
It’s you life. Make good choices.
Final Grade: C