Movies are a great way to experience the world of espionage, to include lessons for developing a spy mindset. The 355 is an entertaining spy action film that is short on plot and long on set pieces around the world. The vague theme and limited character growth leave it feeling episodic. Let’s see why.
The 355 is the latest in a series of female-led spy movies that entertain with the implausible scenario of petite ladies in high heels kicking the shit out of burly henchmen who could win lumberjack competitions – leaning hard on the suspension of disbelief.
The battle of the sexes is the raw clay of comedy, like Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but the theme here is only hinted at, with lots of drama and few laughs. CIA officer Mason Brown (Jessica Chastain) is torn between her career and the man she loves, fellow CIA officer Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan). German BND officer Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger) is alone with trust issues after learning that her father spied for the Soviets. Former UK MI-6 officer Khadijah Adiyeme (Lupita Nyong’o) has left the game and appears to be happy with her boyfriend, but no apparent plans for marriage or kids. Colombian DNI psychologist Graciela Rivera (Penelope Cruz), the self-proclaimed normal one of the bunch, is happily married with two children and no interest in spy games.
The spy plot device centers a high-tech cyber gadget that can hack any computer system, to crash airplanes, power grids, or financial institutions, with few lessons to develop a spy mindset. Perhaps to justify the opening scene location, the son of a Colombian drug dealer designed the gadget. Elijah Clarke (Jason Flemyng) attempts to steal it, but a Colombian team raids the compound. DNI officer Luis Rojas (Edgar Ramirez) kills the drug dealer, takes the gadget, and offers to sell it to CIA for $3 million in Paris.
Mason and Nick travel to Paris, where the City of Lights rekindles their relationship, but the operation implodes as Marie attempts to steal the gadget. In the ensuing chaos, Luis escapes with it, Marie escapes from Mason, and we are led to believe that Nick is killed.
Devastated by the news of Nick’s death, Mason is debriefed in a CIA safehouse, where arrogant male colleagues question her methods. Her boss, Larry Marks (John Douglas Thompson), has an off-the-record discussion to say she’s officially off the case but that he would understand if she were to take matters into her own hands – nudge and a wink (foot stomp clue).
Mason travels to London to enlist Khadijah and returns to Paris. While surveilling Luis and Graciela they spot Marie. More chaos ensues as a Colombia guard betrays Luis to steal the gadget. The four women end up in the same hotel room and make a pact to join forces. This idea of international teamwork (US, UK, Germany, and Colombia) over individual effort is a contrast with the usual lone-wolf, testosterone-fueled hero journey.
The next stop in Marrakesh shows the four women working as a team, with spy mindsets activated – in many ways, the highlight of the movie. They know what they want and make adjustments to achieve their goal. As Khadijah tracks the gadget, Mason, Marie, and Graciela attempt to intercept the courier in a busy market. After some fighting and killing, they snatch it, give it to Marks, and celebrate over beers. However, rather than boast about scars and scalps, they reveal genuine vulnerabilities to each other, which should have been developed more.
However, news of crashing airplanes indicates something is awry. They rush back to the CIA safehouse to find Marks is dead, killed by a mysterious Asian woman who took the gadget. (Turns out Marks is a bad guy.) The same arrogant male colleagues from CIA arrive and conclude that Mason is a traitor, but the women beat them up and escape.
Mason is off the reservation, but she manages to commandeer a military aircraft for transport to Shanghai, where the gadget will be auctioned. The women clean up nice for a red-carpet event and discover how the exchange will go down, but not before Mason discovers that Nick is alive and working for the bad guys. In a moment of honesty, when Nick asks Mason how she felt when she heard he was dead, she replied, “bitter.”
At this point, the movie drags on far too long. The mysterious Asian woman, Li Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan), gave Nick a fake device. Nick returns with a vengeance and has Marie’s boss and Khadijah’s boyfriend killed on live video stream before taking the gadget, which was troubling. It should have been obvious to everyone that Nick wouldn’t leave without the gadget, so there was no reason to sacrifice loved ones in the process.
This is followed by an over-the-top raid on a hotel room to retrieve and destroy the gadget. The women escape and track down Nick in Washington DC, where they poison him and go their separate ways. There's talk about how the system is corrupt (all the bad guys are men), as if they alone can fix it, but corruption appears to be on the rise as women continue to play a more prominent role in government.
The 355 does a decent job of addressing the challenges women face with romantic relationships in the spy business, but it doesn’t resonate or go deep enough. What exactly is the message? Graciela, the moral rudder of the group, should have shown them a better way to live. Instead, she kills a man at the climax. Why?
Since Lysistrata, women have complained about “toxic masculinity,” even arguing that gender stereotypes are socially constructed, so it’s not clear why women would want to be portrayed this way. The best “toxic masculinity” movies have lots of violence, for sure, but usually because it’s necessary to save lives, and it always takes a toll on the soul.
The idea of team effort over individual effort was an interesting spin, but this could have been complemented with more humor and less death and destruction.