The 355 Adds Little to the Spy Genre

Hello, everyone! We’re in a good movie drought, and there’s really no end in sight. Desperate for a trip to the movies, I decided to go see The 355, a “film” about “feminism” in which four women spend approximately 124 minutes girl-bossing and trying to stop potential cyberterrorists while indiscriminately firing into crowds of people who are just trying to buy a baguette. If I lost a braincell for every time a gun was fired in this movie, I wouldn’t have any more braincells.

Sebastian Stan GIF by Diamond Films España
The chaotic energy of this movie in one gif

Synopsis: CIA agent Mason “Mace” Burton (Jessica Chastain) and her partner Nick (Sebastian Stan) are sent to Paris to track down Luis (Édgar Ramirez), a Colombian mercenary with a top-secret cybersecurity weapon. When their operation goes wrong, and Nick is killed, Mace sets out on her own, enlisting computer whiz Khadija (Lupita N’yongo) in an attempt to track down the drive’s new owners. Mace and Khadija soon realize they are out-numbered and decide to join forces with Marie (Diane Kruger), a German spy trying to get the drive for her own country, and Graciela (Penelope Cruz), a psychiatrist sent by the Colombian government. Faced with internal betrayal, the team must work together to find the drive, or risk global destabilization.

My thoughts: The 355 is like every geo-political action movie you’ve seen before, except worse, because it’s wrapped in a veneer of “feminism.” Our heroes are CIA agents sent to save the world from some vaguely technological threat, and our villains are a shadow cabal of violent men, vaguely characterized as either Eastern-European or Middle-Eastern, who encapsulate every identity that the average American viewer might find alarming. In order for our heroes to save the world, they are given free reign to commit mayhem and terror, including but not limited to: stealing people’s vehicles, assaulting innocent civilians, shooting into crowds, torturing captives, murdering anyone deemed threatening, and blowing up the top of a hotel.

The only difference between The 355 and a movie like The Kingsman (which I also despised) is that the former is about women, so it’s feminist. Because we won’t have equal representation in Hollywood until all people, regardless of sex, can commit extrajudicial murder and get away with it. I hate this type of writing. Not only does it compound the already existing problem in spy-thrillers (i.e the glorification of violence, American exceptionalism, and the American military), but it also pretends that writing a plot about women “saving” the world and beating up no-good scoundrels equates to feminist film. Simply inserting female characters into a movie doesn’t make it a feminist movie. It just makes it a trash movie that happens to have women in it.

Get Some Jessica Chastain GIF by Regal

Everything about this movie is underbaked, starting with the four protagonists, whose characterization boils down to Woman With Daddy Issues, Woman With Trust Issues, Woman With Family, and Woman With Computer. Jessica Chastain’s character Mace is the only one in the group with a true “arc,” and naturally, since this is a feminist movie, her arc revolves around a man. In the first ten minutes, we see Mace banter with Nick (the handsome, yet somehow always slightly sleezy Sebastian Stan), reject his advances, accept his advances (?), and mourn his sudden death after Operation Get Techy Thingmajig goes wrong. Throughout the film, Mace learns to rely on herself, and discovers not only that Nick (who she fell in love with in the span of 30 seconds) is actually a double-crossing evil guy, but that the entire CIA is run by double-crossing evil guys. If you told me the tagline for this movie was “men are trash,” I would believe you.

The other women get equally nuanced arcs, like Marie, who evolves from a anti-social German stereotype into a slightly less anti-social German stereotype, and Graciela, who transforms from a caring mother of two into a caring mother of two who can also shoot a gun. Khadija, who is really running the show, is saddled with the role of “woman whose boyfriend wants her to come home from work” and the movie resolves this conflict by murdering her boyfriend. In fact, all the nice men in this film are murdered, because everyone must suffer under the patriarchy, and even movies centering around women can’t resist the “fridged woman” trope. I guess it’s unreasonable to expect an action movie with characters who experience emotional development without having to witness the murder of their families.

Speaking about the murder of these women’s families, I want to talk about the violence in this movie. The 355 falls into the trap of using violence as a way to demonstrate a female character’s strength. And boy are these women violent. They shoot at the slightest provocation, they shoot into crowds of people, they torture a captive (which is a violation of the Geneva Convention!), they shove innocent civilians into busy streets, they shoot into the subway (!!), they stab people to death and hide them under a carpet (???), and they blow up the top floor of a hotel. Not only are they perpetrating acts of violence, but they’re doing them under the guise of “saving the world.” And we’re supposed to root for these people? If it wasn’t a blockbuster, they would be considered terrorists. The lack of concern that these women show for others is insane, and the worst part is that their behavior is completely normal for a spy-thriller. It’s no wonder that so many Americans think that the best way to save people from violence is to use more violence; they’re getting it spoon-fed to them by the media.

But enough of that ranting, we were talking about characterization. If the female characters are underdeveloped, the male characters are even worse. They exist in pure states of good and evil. If they fall under the “good” category, their role is to display unwavering loyalty to their female partner, exhibiting the same intellectual curiosity as a sentient stapler. If they fall under the “evil” category, their only emotions are violence and villainous laughter. Nick, Mace’s love-interest-turned-backstabber, shows the widest range of emotions, sometimes even displaying a facial expression close to remorse, but even as the film’s most complex character, Nick is never given a motivation more complicated than simple greed. How can a man who starts the film as a top CIA agent besotted with his partner end that same movie betraying his agency and attempting to kill that same partner? If you wanted a better answer than “because he’s bad,” you should be watching a different movie.

Even if you can look past the cardboard characters, the only way to watch this movie is to completely turn off your brain. From the Macguffin that can control any network in the globe (how?), to the absurdity of the globe-trotting actions scenes (these women are terrorists who shoot up cafés and hammams), to the conceit itself (why would the USA and Germany be on opposite sides of this conflict), The 355 is a hodgepodge of nonsense held together by slick camera work and pretty costumes. It’s no worse than a trashy action movie led by men, but it’s not any better either. What makes it feel so low-rent is the absolute pandering of the script and the marketing, like naming the movie after George Washington’s undercover female spy even though the concept is completely irrelevant to the plot, and including a scene where the women blame their lack of promotions for saving the world on sexism. Instead of tackling actual issues about how women are represented in media, how they are stymied in the workplace, or how they are victims of systemic violence, the film chooses instead to take the road well-traveled by many other pop-feminist works and focus on the most superficial road bumps in the way of woman’s equality. They could have avoided pandering altogether and made a spy-thriller starring a female cast without taking a pass at “solving” sexism, or they could have made a real effort and approached the matter with nuance, but instead they chose the third option and made a generic action movie with some “amirite ladies” one-liners thrown in.

Sebastian Stan GIF by Diamond Films España

You may think I’m being unduly harsh about this movie. After all, there are a hundred male spy-thrillers that are as bad or worse than this movie. Here’s the thing: I don’t expect anything from those shooty-shooty movies. They don’t pretend to be making a larger statement about our society as a whole. They know their job is to have a hero who spends two hours recklessly using firearms and chasing after bald henchmen, and while I take issue with the inordinate amount of guns and excessive violence in these movies, I don’t expect a thing from them. When I see a cast of A-List actresses assembled like the Avengers, I expect something from them. This movie was executive produced by a woman (Chastain) and co-written by a woman (Theresa Rebeck), and it still feels like it was written by a 12-year-old boy. There is no excuse for the simplistic portrayal of gender roles and the pop-feminist pandering, there is no excuse for the glorification of violence, and there is no excuse for those terrible wigs that they forced these women to wear. In sum, please fire these ladies’ agents, because they all deserve better.

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