Showcasing a thrown-together international team of female spies, “The 355” mostly feels like the pilot for a TV series, just with an inordinately good cast. Any movie in this genre that name-checks James Bond can’t be all bad, but in terms of justifying a trip to the theater, nor is it good enough.
Spanning the globe in pursuit of a high-tech weapon with potentially devastating applications, the film certainly approximates the formula of franchises like Bond and Jason Bourne, with the mandate to filter that through female characters.
The international flavor is similarly calculated, and therein lies part of the problem. Lacking the spark of innovation, the premise comes across as less distinguished by gender than simply generic — checking off boxes for the marketing department without breaking an iota of new ground.
Directed by Simon Kinberg (a veteran of the “X-Men” movies), who wrote the script with Theresa Rebeck, the plot opens by establishing what Hitchcock would have called his MacGuffin, bringing in CIA agent Mason “Mace” Browne (Jessica Chastain) and her partner (Sebastian Stan) to try to acquire the deadly object.
They’re not alone, leading to an encounter with German operative Marie (Diane Kruger), and the involvement of Graciela (Penelope Cruz), an office-bound intelligence therapist who’s the only one unaccustomed to hoisting guns around.
Forced to cooperate with Marie grudgingly after the two have traded punches, Mace enlists computer genius/hacker Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), and it’s off to the races — or rather, a race against the bad guys with stops in Paris, Morocco and Shanghai. In that final locale a fifth highly resourceful operative, Lin Mi Sheng (Chinese star Bingbing Fan), joins the festivities.
While the action is plentiful, there’s nothing especially novel about it, and the twists feel pretty well telegraphed. The film is thus best distinguished by the interplay among the women in lighter moments, with Cruz providing a helpful foundation as a stranger to such adventures worried about surviving to see her kids again.
“James Bond never has to deal with real life,” Mace mutters as they discuss the toll of the spy game, although reality clearly isn’t much of a priority in this sort of exercise.
Like a TV pilot, “The 355” plays a little too transparently like something that wants to set up an ongoing framework, leaving the door open for sequels. Anything’s possible, but putting aside the particular challenges of the current theatrical moment, a stronger movie would have offered more hope of fulfilling that mission.
As is, the cast might possess an enviable abundance of star quality, but “The 355” adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
“The 355” premieres Jan. 7 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.
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