‘The 355’ Film Review: Female Spy Saga Is as By-the-Numbers as a Sudoku

International all-star action tale with Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o and Penélope Cruz drowns in familiarity

The 355
Universal Pictures

There’s an old-school feeling to “The 355,” based not on the film’s espionage action but on its crafting as a piece of product. It’s a film that feels like something a huckster like Joseph E. Levine or Golan-Globus would have crafted; these were producers whose strategy was to hire a bunch of big stars from around the world, put those stars on a poster with guns in their hands, sell the international territories and then, eventually, write a script.

Whether or not that was the sequence of events that led to “The 355,” the final results suggest that more effort went into crafting a top-flight ensemble – led by Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, Penélope Cruz and Fan Bingbing – than into giving these women characters to play or crafting a spy story that didn’t hit all the obvious plot beats in all the obvious international locations.

From sidewalk cafés in Paris to a bustling bazaar in Marrakesh to a high-society art auction in Shanghai, “The 355” is as by-the-numbers as a Sudoku, with screenwriter Theresa Rebeck (“Smash”) and co-writer–director Simon Kinberg (“X-Men: Dark Phoenix”) amalgamating an astonishing collection of spy-movie clichés. Chastain, who’s also a producer here, purportedly hired Kinberg after working with him on “Dark Phoenix;” why his hackwork on that movie would inspire a reunion is a riddle only she could answer, and it’s a mystery that’s far more compelling than any of the plot points “The 355” has to offer.

A Colombia-set prologue laboriously introduces us to the movie’s MacGuffin, a computer drive with the power to shut down city grids and bring down airplanes. It’s snagged by agent Luis (Edgar Ramírez), who offers to sell it to the CIA for $3 million. The agency sends Mason “Mace” Brown (Chastain) and her partner Nick (Sebastian Stan) to Paris to make the swap, but German intelligence agent Marie (Kruger) gets involved, the device goes missing and Nick gets killed.

As Mace turns to cyber expert Khadijah (Nyong’o) for help, Luis is shot, but not before he encrypts his phone – which can track the computer drive – so that only his therapist, Graciela (Cruz), can access it, forcing the psychiatrist to join with the three female spies as they track the doohickey across various continents, eventually leading them to auctioneer Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing).

“The 355,” on paper, reads like a fun, globe-trotting caper about smart, tough women with gifts for transformation and subterfuge. (Khadijah can throw on a head-wrap at a moment’s notice to blend in with shoppers in Marrakesh, and all of them can go glam when they have to infiltrate the Shanghai auction.) As executed, unfortunately, it’s lumbering and familiar, with characters whose individual traits come off more like ideas on a note card than as actual humanity.

As with “Dark Phoenix,” Kinberg demonstrates little understanding of pacing or fight choreography; the big move that he and cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones (“Kick Ass 2”) return to time and again is a 360-degree sweep around the characters, which they execute with the relish of a first-year film student who just saw “Vertigo” for the first time. The most skillful craftsmanship on display is from costume designer Stephanie Collie (“Silent Night”), who figures out a way to put some of the most glamorous women on Earth into a secret agent’s version of both daywear and after-six.

The overqualified cast works overtime to pump life into the blank characters they’ve been assigned; apart from one emotional scene where Cruz and Nyong’o see the lives of their loved ones being threatened, there’s little for the cast to do but deliver exposition dumps or technobabble. This is the kind of film that bobbles the big character details (if we don’t care about the supporting players, their betrayals and deaths aren’t going to mean anything) and the small ones (U.K. actor Leo Staar plays a CIA agent, and his British accent emerges during his big confrontation with Chastain, a moment that no one decided to reshoot or even overdub).

“The 355” is the kind of star-packed, glossy adventure that wants to be the launching pad for a franchise; instead, it’s going to be one of the films most mentioned in future discussions regarding January as a studio dumping-ground for misbegotten movies.

“The 355” opens in U.S. theaters Jan. 7.