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film review

Jessica Chastain as Mason 'Mace' Brown in The 355, co-written and directed by Simon Kinberg.Universal Pictures

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The 355

Directed by Simon Kinberg

Written by Simon Kinberg, Bek Smith and Theresa Rebeck

Starring Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o and Diane Kruger

Classification PG; 138 minutes

In theatres Jan. 7, dependent on local public-health restrictions

The 355 is enjoyable, go-lady nonsense that eventually exhausts itself with its ambitions to be more. It’s like watching a woman have a furious argument with herself about a man who doesn’t love her enough, only it’s about spy movies.

You can practically hear the inner monologue of its star and producer, Jessica Chastain: Why should James Bond be the only spy icon? Why can’t I rappel down a glass skyscraper while shooting an automatic weapon? Sure, I’d like to make my film smarter; I’d like to say important things about how women are superior because, unlike stupid Jason Bourne, we collaborate. But I also want to spout gobbledygook about a stolen data key that can access any closed system on the planet and destabilize world markets. Hell, yes, I’m mad that so many women trust the wrong guy so let’s throw that in. Oh, and let’s show women getting away with stuff because they’re invisible, but let’s also make sure that every actress has at least two kilos of false eyelashes at her disposal, plus a range of eye-catching wigs and footwear. And so what if I want to play a sexy lupine loner but by the end I want to have learned the value of friendship? Ethan Hunt isn’t all that!

The film's title refers to Agent 355, an alleged mystery woman who spied for George Washington during the American Revolution.Universal Pictures

Here’s the plot: U.S. CIA agent Mace (Chastain) goes to Paris to intercept that stolen data key before the bad guys sell it. (“Mace.” A slow-clap for whoever came up with that name.) This badass chick Marie (Diane Kruger) swoops in and upends the op – turns out she’s BND, German intelligence. So Mace has to recruit her old pal Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), who’s retired from Britain’s spy service MI-6, but grudgingly comes back for this job. I can’t quite remember how Graciela (Penelope Cruz) shows up; she’s with the intelligence service in Colombia, where the data key originated, only she’s not an agent, she’s a psychologist. She says that a lot. And they’re all being tracked by Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan), who may be evil, or a Chinese agent, or an evil double-agent.

Suffice it to say that the five team up to trade outfits and rocket launchers, and to give each other sisterly advice: how to get over a rotten boyfriend, how to kneecap enemies with a lamp stand, and so on. Multiple endings make it painfully clear that everyone is super-thirsty to become a permanent quintet – a United Nations of Espionage – and to turn this thing into a franchise.

The title, by the way, refers to Agent 355, an alleged mystery woman who spied for George Washington during the American Revolution. (That section of explanatory dialogue feels lifted right off the Agent 355 Wikipedia page, which also informed me that there was an Agent 355 character on the AMC series Turn: Washington’s Spies. I never watched it. Should I?)

The 355 is the type of January flick that is usually released after the prestige Oscar films, but in time to take advantage of moviegoers still on holiday.Universal Pictures

I’m being harder on this film than it deserves, really. I was pleasantly entertained watching these chicks wheel around and elbow men in the throat, especially Kruger, who obviously could kill me without breaking a sweat. Each one holds the screen magnificently, and that they all signed on to this speaks volumes about the paucity of scripts out there for women, even Oscar nominees.

Ultimately, The 355 is what we in the biz used to call – before COVID-19 upended everything – a typical January flick: released after the prestige Oscar films, but in time to take advantage of moviegoers still on holiday who are itchy for diversion. Hey, Bad Boys for Life and Taken 3 and Paul Blart: Mall Cop all opened in January. Why should the dudes hog all the fun?

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.