The 355: a good starting point for feminist spy flicks.

There is something to be said about movies you know are B-level. The marketing feels a little janky, or it’s one of those films that has a couple A-listers supplemented by a cast you’ve otherwise never seen or heard of. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, but it sets the tone for the film you’re about to see. Movies, especially B-movies, can be an expensive ask for broke students. If a film isn’t immediately worth forking out what limited funds we have to go see it, we simply won’t see it.

The 355 was going to suffer this fate, but Village Cinemas appeared with the answer: Student Wednesdays. Present your student card on Wednesday, and get $10AUD tickets! Nearly half-price! Quite the treat. I took immediate advantage of it last Wednesday. I purchased my ticket, my drink, and my ice cream (it’s Summertime) and took my place alone at a balcony spot above the door in Cinema 4. Encouraged by a near-empty theatre, I found myself comfortably sprawled across the floor — atrocious behaviour, to be certain, but who was going to complain? The group of three, ridiculously talkative women with their bare feet up on the seats in front of them?

© 2022 Universal Pictures.

In The 355 case, the A-listers (Jessica Chastain and Sebastian Stan) appear to treat the film as a reunion — the last time they were on-screen together may have been in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, a considerably more thoughtful film with significantly more to say then their soiree in this Simon Kinberg project. They’re having fun with their roles, and you can tell. Stan in particular brings terrifying energy I hadn’t expected of him. As for the rest of the cast, including Diane Kruger, Lupita Nyong’o, and Penélope Cruz, they perform their roles with rigorous grace.

The problem with The 355 is how its story doesn’t live up to its title. I came in, sold on five women from different intelligence agencies (from the USA, UK, Germany, Colombia, and China) working together to retrieve a World-War-3-starting McGiffin. While it technically accomplishes this premise, I came away feeling robbed, namely by how the film achieves this grouping.

Meet the film’s actual primary cast. © 2022 Universal Pictures.

Fan Bingbing, billed suspiciously higher than her some of her other international counterparts, appears toward the tail-end of the film with seemingly less than fifteen lines of dialogue. She even appears green-screened into some of the scenes where she’s meant to be present, yet rather conspicuously isn’t standing with the group. A bit odd to say the least, given she’s so incredibly important to the film’s marketing. Had trailers not spoiled the surprise of her, I would have enjoyed her sudden appearance and minute inclusion much more. Instead, I kept waiting for her to fo show up and was bitterly disappointed when she did. So do five women from different intelligence agencies work together? Yes. Do they do it for most of the film? Er, no. Not really.

All-female genre breakers are becoming more commonplace, and if I have to leave The 355 with something, it’s the knowledge that Chastain and Co did their all-female feminist spy run well. I’ve noticed other reviews often make the complaint that the film “takes itself too seriously,” as though the women within need to alleviate the tension they’re causing. To those people, I ask this: how often did James Bond or Jason Bourne make wise-cracks to people they kick downstairs or shoot at? Because the women do crack half-smiles at one another on the rare occasions they have five minutes to themselves. I enjoyed the underlying black sheep status Mace and Marie acknowledge they each have (considered the lone wolves of their agencies).

The seriousness presents viewers time to breathe in the breaks from brutality. Quiet moments become contemplative. Action becomes focussed… except for when they employ that stupid shakey-camera technique, which is still a thing in 2022 apparently — and let that be my only major complaint with this film. It leaves us safe from dumb humour of the all-female Ghostbusters, for example, and allows the film to set itself apart from expectations set by Sandra Bullock films. Female-led films aren’t and shouldn’t have to be regulated to humour. It is a positively pleasant breath of fresh air.

© 2022 Universal Pictures.

While I don’t wish to spoil the movie, there is a moment between Mace and Graciela that hit me directly in my gender. It’s an acknowledgement of women often apologising for the actions of our male counterparts, as though we’re responsible for the dumb or terrifying things they decide they’re going to do. This is the only time I felt the film openly, deliberately said “by the way, this is a feminist flick” outside of its obvious cast of characters. It’s also one of those things I feel may fly over the heads of our fathers, uncles, and brothers as not meaning much in the grand scheme of things. But it meant a lot. To me, at least.

So is it a feminist spy flick? Yes. Absolutely. And it’s done well. It’s not the absolute pinnacle of the genre, but it’s a solid starting point. These are the films we need to bring female spies to the big screen. It needed fine-tuning, yes. It can also be argued by the hard-core feminists that the film is too “safe” to truly lead the say.

But The 355 is at least a start. If there’s a sequel, I look forward to seeing it. And if there isn’t, that’s perfectly okay too.

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