January is here. Most years that means that the worst of the worst in film is about to land (alongside some wider releases for Oscar-hopefuls). But this year is a bit different thanks to COVID. Films have been delayed for so long that studios are dumping what could be a few gems into the month of January. The 355 was not one of those movies. It was delayed, but it was delayed from January 2021 to… January 2022.
That’s right, this movie is so January that instead of picking another spot in the basically wide open film release schedule of 2021 the studio just delayed it an entire year so that it could release in the month it deserves. The movie is no The Legend of Hercules, my basis for bad January movies, but it is indeed January through and through. It seems that not even a pandemic can keep the month of January down.
Director: Simon Kinberg
Release Date: January 7, 2022 (Theatrical)
The 355, if you can’t tell from the trailer, is a female-led action movie written and directed by a man, Simon Kinberg. While Kinberg co-wrote the screenplay with Theresa Rebeck and Bek Smith, it sure feels like a movie about women made by a man. The premise is nothing special: there’s a hard drive that can hack into anything in the world so Mason ‘Mace’ Browne (Jessica Chastain) is sent by the CIA to retrieve it with her partner/love interest Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan). However, it’s a double-cross! Stan is actually evil (not really a spoiler since it’s telegraphed from the jump) and Chastain must join up with a cohort of other female spies from other countries to clear their names and save the world. Joining her are British hacker Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), German uber-spy Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger), Columbian psychologist Graciela (Penelope Cruz), and Chinese agent Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan).
It is a setup we’ve seen a million times before in far better-made movies, though usually led by men. The plot revolves around a ridiculous McGuffin, which is so unbelievable as to almost trip the movie into a parody of itself. It’s also a bit too convoluted. The movie involves a host of awkward twists and turns as it tries to bring its group of heroes together that almost break the film. There’s no real logic to how things play out or why characters do what they do. You could excuse it as just dumb fun but it isn’t really fun enough to be that, especially as it tries to be something more.
The film clearly wants to wear its feminist values on its sleeve but its messaging is always MESSAGING! Every aspect of its girl power is crammed into a story that doesn’t seem to warrant it. They’ve made a basic spy thriller and put a cast of women in the lead then sprinkled in a bunch of lines to emphasize the fact that it is women in the lead. The former is awesome, the latter feels awfully forced. At the close of the movie, a big deal is made about a group of women winning, but the film doesn’t effectively weave this them into its premise, making the “girl power” moment feel like a cheap one. If the theme of the film was going to be feminism then it needs to be woven into the actual movie, not an afterthought. A better option would have to have just played it as a straight spy thriller without shoving in the hackney lines. You can go one way or another but not both.
I would have preferred the film simply play as a spy film with female leads. In that regard, it is actually pretty decent. There’s nothing special about almost every aspect of the film but it does function on most levels when you turn off your brain. The action sequences hold up well enough, though nothing is truly awe-inspiring. Chastain is decent enough in her myriad of fight sequences but everything is simply fine. Kinberg has no flair for action direction but he’s serviceable. Everything is just very… January.
There are also some very obvious issues with Fan not being around the other actors for shooting as much. Her character doesn’t come in until later in the movie but she’s often shot completely separate from them except for a few key scenes. The final shootout was clearly done with the main cast in one shoot and Fan at another at some other time. It makes for some really odd editing as the group joins together for a final battle without actually joining together. January.
The 355 is a mid-level spy thriller that offers relatively little but wants to be a lot more. As the industry changes, mid-level actioners like this are being shoved out of production as the returns just aren’t good enough. Part of the problem is that so many of them aren’t just mid-level in budget but mid-level in quality. They’re January. If the genre has any of surviving (and it probably doesn’t) it’s going to have to do a lot better than The 355.