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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Review: Female-driven spy thriller ‘The 355’ can’t keep up with its cast led by Jessica Chastain

By Michael Phillips Chicago Tribune

It’ll stream soon enough on Peacock. Meantime, for a few pandemically heightened weeks, the spy thriller “The 355” is sticking to its theatrical release. It should play better in a home-viewing atmosphere of limited expectations and third-year viral exhaustion.

The cast? Not the problem. Quite the opposite. They save their own movie, here and there. Jessica Chastain’s production company developed the idea, scripted by Theresa Rebeck and director Simon Kinberg.

The material might’ve gotten by with a different director; Kinberg, however, whose previous directorial feature was the brutal flatfoot “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” offers only frenetic mismanagement of the action scenes. Of all the quick-cut shaky-cam “Bourne Ultimatum” knockoffs, this is the shaky-cammest.

“The 355” takes its title from the female Revolutionary War spy. It stars Chastain as a fierce CIA operative on the trail of cyberterrorists whose world-mussing plans hinge on a cellphone-sized “totally untraceable master key.”

That key can hack into anything: power grids, airplane cockpits, restaurant menu QR codes, what have you. Chastain’s character, Mason “Mace” Brown – loner, fighter, owner of a spiffy jet-black trench coat – heads to Paris with her fellow CIA op and bestie (Sebastian Stan) posing as newlyweds.

They soon learn that others in the international espionage community, including Diane Kruger as a steely German intelligence agent, are tracking the same Colombian (Edgar Ramirez) temporarily holding the key to all evil and looking to sell it to the highest bidder.

Penelope Cruz is the Colombian op who joins the hunt, a therapist by training and not much of a weapons enthusiast and therefore wholly at odds with what “The 355” is selling. Mace enlists the help of her London friend Khadijah (Lupita Nyongo), ace cybersecurity expert.

Each of the main actors carries her own contrasting brands of physicality and swagger, with Kruger and Nyongo especially formidable. The way the chases and smackdowns are handled visually, however, you get maddeningly little sense of how these performers move.

The exception, late in the game, is Bingbing Fan as a Shanghai auction house staffer with a minor in martial arts. Some cliches are easier to take than others in the spy genre. Each time someone says, “Well, off to Marrekech!” or “See you in Shanghai” (I’m paraphrasing), I get a slight thrill from any film old-school enough to believe in the glamour of globe-trotting in the service of another roomful of corpses after another round of gunfire.

Now and then, “The 355” sticks a landing: There’s a neat lights-out bit where the women take on yet another anonymous collection of hapless men in near-total darkness. But by the time the movie’s chief adversary screams “Where’s the drive?!” over and over, referring to that totally untraceable master key, you’re thinking, yes, good question: How can a movie so frenetic lack the very thing everyone’s screaming about?