Simon Kinberg’s all-female spy thriller is hopelessly generic
Women are seeing an increased representation in film genres that were previously barred to them. Although the action genre has been slower on the uptake, there have been some pioneering works that are normalizing seeing a female character as a non-sexualized heroine. The latest in this genre normalization is Simon Kinberg’s The 355 (2022).
The 355 follows secret agents from all over the world who seek to track down a powerful hacking device from international terrorists. The reluctant team is made up of CIA operative Mace (Jessica Chastain), German secret agent Marie (Diane Kruger), ex-MI6 member Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), and a therapist in the employ of the Colombian authorities Graciela (Penelope Cruz). Towards the end the Chinese authorities impersonated by the mysterious Lin Mi (Bingbing Fan) also appear.
Simon Kinberg has become a renowned screenwriter and producer in Hollywood, working on blockbuster franchises such as X-Men and Star Wars animated series. He’s only recently tried his hand at directing, with his first film being the horribly received finale to the Fox era of the X-Men: X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019). His second directorial effort steers away from the franchise IP work that had been his bread and butter for years and goes for an “original” idea. However, Kinberg seems to be starting on the wrong foot behind the camera, as The 355 places the most cliched and derivative ideas of the spy genre at its core.
With a mid-budget action flick like The 355 audiences today expect some winning visuals and killer action. This point seemed to have been made to the industry with the success of the John Wick films, and yet Kinberg delivers a movie that seems plucked from the mid-2000s. We have a ridiculous world-threatening plot with a laughable McGuffin and an uninteresting and convoluted series of twists. Kinberg’ action also harkens to the sloppy editing and shaky-cam era that dizzied viewers thought they had bidden farewell to years ago. The result is a film that on paper would struggle and fail to distinguish itself from any other generic spy thriller.
However, Kinberg’s talent and saving grace in The 355 is his talent. The American director is able to wrangle some of the best female talent working today. I was particularly pleased to see Kruger back in a mainstream film after under-the-radar work in recent years. Even in the casting, however, you see mechanical choices that bog the film down. Many of the characters seem to be included more for the sake of appealing to specific box-office markets than in the service of the story. This is certainly the case with Bingbing Fan, who is shamefully tacked on at the end of the film and is given nothing to do. While it’s great to see such a murderer’s row of charismatic actresses, by including so many Kinberg dilutes the power and memorability of any one of their performances. As a result, an interesting dynamic between Kruger, Chastain, and Nyong’o, which felt like the core of the film, is completely abandoned.
There is much to be said for the normalization of female characters in these types of roles. The 355 rarely goes out to make it apparent that its characters are women (the film could easily have starred all men and not changed much), but this apparent gender-blind approach to story does have the benefits of simply accustoming viewers to seeing these kinds of characters. I would have personally found it interesting if the characters used society’s perception of their gender to their own advantage, much as Lupin (2021-) did with cliches of black men in France, but that may have been too much to ask from this type of movie.
In the end, The 355 is sadly another dud from Kinberg as a director. The film finds it very hard to rear its head above a forgettable spy plot, and you only wish that the incredible talent attached to the film would have been given something better to work on.