Spy thrillers, even female-led ones are no stranger to the movie industry. But, what “The 355” — Universal’s latest espionage feature — does differently is insert more than one gun-toting, punch-throwing bada** lady in heels into the mix. It’s refreshing, and it’s been a long time coming.
“The 355” stars Jessica Chastain as Mason “Mace” Brown, who’s introduced in the beginning along with her partner, Nick (Sebastian Stan). Much like her characters in 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and 2017’s “Molly’s Game,” she’s a woman successfully making an impact in a man’s world — and that’s enforced by the beating we see her giving another male CIA operative during training in one of the agency’s gyms.
Unlike other movies that sport the same formula, however (a scene from “Miss Congeniality” came to mind while watching Mace serve the beatdown, much like Sandra Bullock to Benjamin Bratt’s character), we are soon introduced to another operative, but she’s from Germany.
Diane Kruger comes in as Marie Schmidt, and she and Mace hit the ground running (literally) going after the same mission surrounding a digital drive full of information that could control anything from a small plane to an entire city grid with just the click of a button… So, yeah, virtually every intelligence agency and certified “bad guy” wants their hand on it.
Mace, who is undercover with Nick as a married couple enjoying their honeymoon has her plan thwarted by Marie, but the drive ultimately does not land in either of their hands. A third man who was sitting by Mace and Nick (played by Edgar Ramírez) picks up the drive, but it’s not long after that a Colombian agency comes in and tries to get him to give it up. Enter Penelope Cruz.
Cruz’s character, Graciela, is a psychologist. She doesn’t exactly come equipped as an agent, but she’s thrown into the mission alongside a slew of operatives just for being there, and her character adds a bit of levity to the situation. She’s technically a civilian, and with each layer added, she grows increasingly more worried, but also, much braver.
But, what would a spy movie be without a tech wizard? Much like Justin Bartha’s Riley Poole in “National Treasure” (where Kruger played Nicholas Cage’s damsel somewhat in distress; that’s not the case here), Lupita Nyong’o comes in as Khadijah. Mace seeks out her old friend after her run-in with Marie in Paris and after the drive falls into the hands of Ramírez’s character. Being on her own (Mace is under the impression that Nick was killed during that initial pursuit), the American operative seeks out Khadijah for help. She reluctantly agrees.
Unlike Poole in National Treasure, however, Khadijah is unafraid. And it’s finally when the four women meet, or more so, are forced to join forces that the story really begins to kick off. Girl power sets the story in motion, and the action — this is made by the studio of “Jason Bourne” and “X-Men” director Simon Kinberg — is constant and hard-hitting.
The four women are set on a similar path now to find the drive that could cause catastrophic destruction globally if it falls into the wrong hands. They also begin to connect as a team. Mace and Marie, foes at the beginning, don’t exactly become friends right away, but they realize they are more similar than they think. While Khadijah makes calls to her husband, played by Raphael Acloque, and Graciela worries and talks to her husband and two boys back in Colombia, Marie and Mace have no one to check in with. In the beginning of the film, Mace and Nick chat about only really having each other, and we find out Marie’s family has a sordid past. So, they are alone, but they have their job. Somewhat.
Sticking to the theme of spy-thriller characteristics, most wouldn’t be whole without some sort of betrayal. Without revealing too much, that ultimately fuels the climax of the movie and it also introduces one other female character who knows her way around a trigger. Bingbing Fan comes in at the beginning of the film’s third act, but she and her father have played roles almost the whole way through. As Lin Mi Sheng, Fan reveals the true intentions of certain characters and also, a way for the women to get home. It doesn’t come so easy, however.
The final scenes of the film are peppered with reveals, heartbreaking moments that will make you gasp, and of course a final action scene that takes place in an expensive-looking hotel suite all the way at the top of a sky-high building in Shanghai. The fight scenes hit 360, with each woman showing their own expertise and the faith that they now have in each other. As Fan’s character says earlier in the film: “We all look different and speak differently… But we are the same.” The same pursuit of fighting to save the world comes to a head, but it doesn’t come to a close once the bad guys are gunned down.
The women are set up once again. The perpetrator survived the attack and now has his own agency looking for the people who saved the planet. But, it ends up being a sweet ending of sorts for the group of women, and a bit of an icy finale for one character (once you see the movie you’ll understand this writer’s question of why do bad guys always offer drinks to their enemies during a tense meet-up?)
It’s in the final scene we also learn of the meaning of The 355. Mace recalls a story in her early days at the agency, one that revolved around a certain female spy of George Washington’s with the codename Agent 355. During that final conversation it’s talked about how they called her that so the world wouldn’t know her name. “But someone knew her name,” Mace answers.
The film ends with the women going their separate ways, Mace turns to Marie to say goodbye. Kruger’s Marie laughs, “I doubt it.” Hopefully, writers Kinberg, Theresa Rebeck and Bek Smith doubt it too, because there should be more screen-time for “The 355.”
“The 355” hits theaters Jan. 7.