Review: ‘The 355,’ starring Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger and Bingbing Fan

January 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Penélope Cruz, Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger and Lupita Nyong’o in “The 355” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“The 355”

Directed by Simon Kinberg

Culture Representation: Taking place in Colombia, France, the United States, Morocco, the United Kingdom and China, the action film “The 355” features a racially diverse cast (white, Latino, black and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Five women from five different countries join forces to prevent a world-destroying computer hard drive from getting into the wrong hands. 

Culture Audience: “The 355” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast and spy movies that are big on action and lacking in believable and well-written stories.

Bingbing Fan, Lupita Nyong’o and Jessica Chastain in “The 355” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

If you’re going to do a “female empowerment” film set in the world of international espionage, then don’t make a movie that’s not just embarrassing to women but also to anyone who wants to make or see a good movie. Even with an all-star cast of headliners, “The 355” is just a silly parade of fight scenes to distract from all the plot holes and lack of logic in this witless spy caper movie. “The 355” has a very talented and experienced cast, but the entire story is so cringeworthy and badly conceived, it seems like it was made for a beginner student film instead of a major studio film starring at least two Oscar winners.

“The 355” was directed by Simon Kinberg, who co-wrote the atrocious screenplay with Theresa Rebeck. Kinberg is best known as a producer and writer of several “X-Men” movies. He made his feature-film directorial debut with the 2019 tedious train wreck called “Dark Phoenix,” which was a lackluster end to “The X-Men” prequel movie phase that began with 2011’s “X-Men: First Class.” “The 355” is another train wreck, but at least it has more adrenaline-packed action than “Dark Phoenix,” even if the action scenes are ridiculously staged.

“The 355” is about five women from five different countries who band together to stop the wrong people from getting a computer hard drive that’s capable of destroying the world. Four of the women have experience in international espionage, while the fifth woman is a “fish out of water,” which is just an excuse to have a woman act like a Nervous Nellie in a gun-toting action movie because she’s afraid of guns. The movie’s title refers to the code name for the unidentified female spy who was crucial in helping the Americans in the U.S. Revolutionary War. Some female spies are still referred to as 355.

The five heroines of the story are:

  • Mason “Mace” Browne (played by Jessica Chastain), a hard-driving American who’s an independent-minded agent for the CIA.
  • Marie Schmidt (played by Diane Kruger), a ruthless German spy working for an unnamed agency, who’s even more of a cold-blooded assassin than Mace is.
  • Khadijah Adiyeme (played by Lupita Nyong’o), a computer-savvy Brit who used to be an agent for MI6, but she left the agency to become a computer specialist.
  • Lin Mi Sheng (played by Bingbing Fan, also known as Fan Bingbing), a mysterious Chinese operative who plays the role of a wealthy art curator in charge of a pivotal auction in the movie.
  • Graciela Rivera (played by Penélope Cruz), a Colombian psychologist who unintentionally gets mixed up with these spies and spends a lot of time complaining about it.

The sought-after destructive computer hard drive is shown in the movie’s opening scene, which takes place 150 miles south of Bogotá, Colombia. A British financier named Elijah Clarke (played by Jason Flemying) has arrived at the palatial estate of a man named Santiago (played by Pablo Scola), who is obviously a shady character, based on all the menacing-looking armed bodyguards on his property. Santiago’s young adult son is a computer whiz named Jeronimo (played by Marcello Cruz), who has invented a computer program that can cause massive global destruction, including worldwide blackouts and aircraft explosions—all by doing a few keystrokes on a computer.

Jeronimo and Santiago proudly show off a few demonstrations for Elijah, by making a plane explode in the air and causing a citywide blackout in Bogotá. Jeronimo brags about his destructive computer program: “Try to make a copy, it deletes itself. I’m the only one who can make it.”

Meanwhile, a group of six Colombian National Intelligence Directory agents are hiding outside in a jungle near the estate. The agents are armed and ready to attack, because they think a major drug deal is happening in Santiago’s home. But they hear on their audio surveillance equipment that this isn’t a drug deal. It’s something involving computers and cyber destruction.

When the agents see the plane explode in the air, the agents go on the attack and raid the home. A shootout happens that leaves almost everyone in the house dead, except for Elijah (who made a quick escape) and a Colombian National Intelligence Directory agent named Luis Rojas (played by Édgar Ramírez), who takes the computer hard drive. Luis then decides to sell the hard drive to whoever is the first to pay him $3 million, because he wants to take the money and disappear with his family to have an anonymous, wealthy life.

Someone should’ve told Luis (and “The 355” filmmakers) that $3 million is a ridiculously low amount of money for this type of weapon that can cause global destruction. And it’s really not even enough money for a family to live on for the rest of their lives, if they want to be considered “rich.” It’s one of many poorly conceived details in “The 355,” which is one of the worst big-budget, major studio movies about international espionage in the 21st century.

The word gets out to various government intelligence agencies that this destructive computer drive is up for sale on the black market. As an example of how creatively bankrupt “The 355” is, the filmmakers don’t even come up with a name for the computer hard drive. The characters in the movie just keep referring to the computer hard drive as “the drive.”

“The 355” then shows how various people (heroes, villains and some people in between) try to get possession of “the drive” and all the dumb shenanigans that ensue. There are so many things wrong with how badly these operations are bungled. For example, this scenario is repeated to boring predictability in the movie: People who think they’ve stolen the drive find out that they don’t have it after all.

This computer hard drive is the equivalent of a deadly weapon, but no one in the movie takes any precautions to put this computer hard drive in any type of protective casing to avoid scratching or other damage. Time and time again, the drive is plopped into backpacks, mishandled and tossed around in so many fights, it’s a miracle that this hard drive comes out unscathed, as it does in this grossly unrealistic movie. And if this hard drive is a weapon of mass destruction that can’t be duplicated, then none of the “heroes” thinks of taking the obvious action, until toward the end of the film.

Another ludicrously awful thing about “The 355” is how it depicts spy agencies of First World countries as woefully understaffed and incompetent. It’s the only illogical reason to explain why these agents zip around the world with almost no accountability to supervisors, but they have miraculous access to resources that can only be cleared through supervisors. Major decisions about international security are staged to look like only one mid-level spy supervisor in each country makes all these important decisions, thereby completely erasing a realistic chain of command.

That’s what happens when Mace and her longtime spy partner/best friend Nick Fowler (played by Sebastian Stan) get assigned by their supervisor Larry Marks (played by John Douglas Thompson) to retrieve “the drive” in Paris. Larry’s CIA title is never revealed, but he’s not at the highest level, based on the small number of people who report to him and the low-quality office space where he works. The same could be said for Marie’s boss Jonas Muller (played by Sylvester Groth), who is later described as Marie’s closest confidant, even though he doesn’t really trust her.

Why do Mace and Nick have to go to Paris? It’s because the CIA somehow found out that Luis will be there at an outdoor cafe to sell “the drive.” Why choose an outdoor cafe where there could be dozens of witnesses, street cameras and many things that could go wrong in a public place? Why not choose a private place to do the deal in secret? Because it’s an idiotic movie like “The 355,” were so-called trained professionals make the dumbest decisions.

Mace and Nick have been assigned undercover identities for this mission, where they have to pose as American newlyweds named Joel and Ethel Lewis. And they just happen to sit right next to the same outdoor cafe table as Luis. Nick just happens to have a backpack that’s identical to Luis’ backpack. Luis, like a fool, leaves his backpack on the ground.

You know what’s in the backpack. Nick does too. And so does a cafe waitress, who is really German spy Marie going undercover. Nick and Mace try to distract Luis in a conversation, so that Nick can switch his backpack with Luis’ backpack when Luis isn’t looking. But what do you know: Marie, posing as a waitress with Nick’s order, spills the food and drinks on Nick, and then steals Nick’s backpack intead of Luis’ backpack. A person with common sense would’ve taken both backpacks, in order to leave nothing to chance.

The ruckus results in two simulatenous chase scenes: Mace chases after Marie, who ends up getting away in a subway train. Nick chases after Luis, who takes his backpack and runs away in a panic on a busy street. The chase scenes predictably have “near miss” scenarios where subways and cars get in the way, and it looks like people might be run over if they’re not careful. And after all that trouble, Marie finds out that she took the wrong backpack.

Luis goes into hiding at a hotel, but the Colombian government finds out where he is and dispatches Graciela to offer him therapy. “I’m the only one in the agency who really knows you,” Graciela tells Luis. It’s an obvious ploy to see if Luis will give up secrets about where he has “the drive.” And that’s how Graciela gets caught up in this battle for “the drive.” She finds out the hard way when she barely escapes a shootout that takes place when she’s walking with Luis through a fish processing facility, while Luis still has “the drive” in his backpack.

Graciela has a husband and two sons (the kids are about 6 to 9 years old) at home in Colombia, so the movie makes a big deal of Graciela being not just the only mother in the group of five heroines but also the only one who’s not trained to be a spy. Therefore, “The 355” has multiple scenes of Graciela lying to her family on the phone by telling them that’s she’s away on a safe business trip, while griping to everyone who knows the truth that she doesn’t belong in this dangerous mess.

Graciela is so afraid of guns, she doesn’t even want to touch guns. Why did Graciela choose to work for a government spy agency then? Couldn’t she be a psychologist somewhere else? Of course not, because then “The 355” wouldn’t have a stereotypical “I’m so not prepared to defend myself in fights” confused character that always seems to be in action movies that are plagued with the laziest clichés.

And here’s another lazy cliché for a spy movie: If a female spy is a lead character in the movie, then she has sex with a co-worker. That’s what happens when Mace and Nick hook up for real, shortly after they find out that they’re supposed to be posing as newlyweds. The movie drops big hints that Mace is secretly in love with Nick but she doesn’t want to admit it to anyone.

Nick has been hot and heavy to be “more than friends” with Mace for quite some time, but she tells him: “You’re my best friend. I don’t have anybody else. I don’t want to mess this up.” Immediately after she gives Nick this mini-lecture about wanting to keep things strictly professional between them, she starts seductively undressing in front of him in their Paris hotel room, and they have sex.

After the debacle of losing “the drive” in Paris, Mace goes to London to reconnect with her estranged friend Khadijah. Mace, who has now become a rogue agent, begs Khadijah to help her find Luis and “the drive,” as well as to get revenge on Marie. Khadijah, who has comfortably settled into civilian live with her understanding husband Abdul (played by Raphael Acloque), reluctantly agrees to help Mace on this mission. Abdul handles Khadijah’s decision to go on this mission and possibly be killed as casually as a husband being told that his wife is going away on an adventure trip.

More chase scenes and shootouts ensue. Marie poses as a police officer and whisks Graciela into her custody in a hotel room. Mace and Khadijah burst into the hotel room because they’ve been tracking Marie. They all decide they have a common enemy and decide to join forces. The scene where they decide to team up is so trite and overly contrived, you almost half-expect them to yell, “Girl power!”

Mace, Khadijah, Marie and Graciela end up in Morocco. And when an unimaginative action movie takes place in Morocco, you know what that means (cliché alert): a chase scene in a crowded outdoor marketplace in Marrakesh. And “the drive” gets bounced around in more backpacks and knapsacks.

After the hijinks in Morocco, the four women go to Shanghai, where there’s an auction of luxury art. That’s how Mace, Marie, Khadijah and Graciela meet Lin Mi, who is overseeing this event. And you know what that means (cliché alert): the female spies dress up in banquet attire so they can mix and mingle with elite society people at this auction. Predictably, it’s a scene where the women’s sex appeal is used as a distraction to men in at least two instances.

More clichés clog up the film. And almost all of them are unconvincing. One of the clichés is about someone who supposedly dies during a fight. But surprise! This person isn’t really dead after all.

This person’s “departure” is so abrupt and unrealistically handled in the movie, as soon as this person is announced as dead, it’s obvious that this person will be back in the movie at some point. The fake death subplot doesn’t take into account that many people (including a medical examiner) would have to see the body in order for a death certificate to be signed. Of course, “The 355” filmmakers assume that viewers are too dumb to know these facts.

“The 355” is so shoddily filmed, it’s obvious to tell who the stunt doubles are in the action scenes. In a scene where Mace and Marie are in a physical fight before they decide to team up, there’s a shockingly bad close-up where the face of Chastain’s stunt double can clearly be seen. Kinberg and Chastain are two of the producers of “The 355,” so they bear a lot of the responsbility for how this disaster of a movie turned out.

Beyond the stunts, some of the action scenes are plotted with absolutely no sense. There’s a scene were certain people are held captive in a house, then they are inexplicably let go (when in reality they would be killed by their captors), and the newly freed kidnapping victims find out that there’s an arsenal of loaded weapons in a nearby unlocked room. How stupid do kidnappers have to be to let that happen? As stupid as they are in “The 355.”

The acting in this movie is nothing special, and it often looks subpar because of the moronic dialogue. Khadijah is written as the most intelligent and level-headed of the five heroines, but she also just spews a lot of computer jargon that’s very phony. Unfortunately, Fan’s acting as Lin Mi is so stiff, it’s easy to see why she has the least screen time out of the five actresses—she doesn’t appear in “The 355” until the last third of the film.

Even though Marie is supposed to be the secretive “ice queen” of the group, ironically, she’s the only one of the five who’s given a backstory, so that she can have a scene where she gets emotional about her past. (It has to do with her father, who was also a spy.) It’s worth noting that Kruger replaced Marion Cotillard, who was originally cast in “The 355” as a French spy named Marie. Cotillard should feel relieved that she didn’t get stuck in this terrible movie.

Graciela is a one-note character, whose main purpose is to say variations of “I don’t belong here! I want to get back to my family!” Mace is a hollow shell that the filmmakers obviously want to portray as the group’s badass leader. Too bad they forgot to give Mace an intriguing personality.

“The 355” also perpetuates outdated and sexist movie stereotypes that the best female spies can’t possibly be mothers too. It’s no coincidence that in “The 355,” the only trained spies in this group of heroines are women who don’t have children. It’s a not-so-subtle message that if you’re a female spy, being a mother is supposed to ruin your chances of being great in your career. In reality, there have been plenty of prominent female spies who were mothers at same time they were spies. Mata Hari and Josephine Baker are just two examples.

One of the most laughable things about “The 355” isn’t on screen but it’s in the movie’s production notes. There’s a statement in “The 355” production notes about the intention of the movie: “Character, realism and authenticity were key to the filmmakers’ vision.” However, almost everything in “The 355” is the opposite of realistic. As a spy movie, “The 355” is as unrealistic as James Bond being a Russian astronaut becoming an American cowboy who starts working for the CIA.

Universal Pictures will release “The 355” in U.S. cinemas on January 7, 2022.

Review: ‘Iron Mask,’ starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Flemyng and Jackie Chan

January 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan in “Iron Mask” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Iron Mask”

Directed by Oleg Stepchenko

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, Russia and China, the action-adventure film “Iron Mask” has a cast of white people and Asians representing the working-class, royalty and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An adventurer teams up with a princess disguised as a teenage boy to rescue the princess’ imprisoned father and save a magical dragon that has been taken over by an evil witch and her group of wizards.

Culture Audience: “Iron Mask” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching nonsensical and poorly acted action flicks.

Jason Flemyng, Anna Churina and Xingtong Yao in “Iron Mask” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Iron Mask” is one of those movies that’s so horrendous, it’s like an insulting parody of a bad movie. “Iron Mask” (sloppily directed by Oleg Stepchenko, who co-wrote the insipid screenplay with Alexey A. Petrukhin) looks like it has a budget that was spent mostly on the production design (some of the set designs are fairly elaborate); the often-tacky visual effects; and the salaries of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan, who get top billing. However, these two past-their-prime action stars are each in “Iron Mask” for less than 20 minutes of this two-hour muddled mess of a film. That skimpy screen time should be enough of an indication how much of a shameless ripoff “Iron Mask” is to mislead viewers into thinking that Schwarzenegger and Chan are the central characters in the movie. They’re not.

In reality, “Iron Mask” is a bloated slog of terrible acting and time-wasting scenes where there are pointless fights that all lead to a predictable and very cheesy ending. It’s the kind of dreck that, if people have the patience to watch the whole thing without falling asleep, they’ll forget almost everything about the movie not long after watching it. It’s not only mind-numbingly bad, but it’s also very boring.

You know how movies look where people speak in another language but their voices are overdubbed with another language? “Iron Mask” (whose convoluted story takes place mostly in England, Russia and China) is that type of movie. It has an international cast, and there are scenes where it’s obvious that people spoke another language when filming the movie but then it was overdubbed in English for release in English-speaking countries. The weird thing is that the audio doesn’t quite synch up well throughout the entire movie, so it looks like even the actors who speak English have overdubbing. That’s how carelessly the film was made.

“Iron Mask” was previously titled “The Mystery of the Dragon Seal,” which is a more appealing title, but it still doesn’t change how badly this movie was made. Here’s the gist of the plot, as it’s explained in the beginning of the film with voiceover narration that’s supposed to sound mystical: In a land far, far away, there lived a creature called the Great Dragon, whose eyelashes went deep into the ground and came up as plants that were made into tea. (Try not to laugh at the ludicrousness of this concept.) The land where the dragon lives is supposed to be an alternate fantasy version of China.

Humans called white wizards were entrusted with the tea. The dragon has a special white seal, which the dragon gave to two white wizards whom the dragon trusted the most: a man named Master (played by Chan) and his princess daughter named Cheng Lan (played by Xingtong Yao). But since movies like this need villains, it’s explained that some of the wizards got greedy, went to the dark side, and called themselves black wizards. These black wizards aligned with an evil witch (played by Li Ma), who led them in an army that took control of the dragon so they could steal all the tea and sell it for their own financial gain.

The witch and the black wizards stopped trimming the dragon’s eyelashes, so the dragon’s eyes became too heavy, and the dragon fell into a deep sleep. The white wizards fought to free the dragon, but they were defeated by the black wizards. As a result, Master and his daughter Cheng Lan were imprisoned on opposite sides of Europe.

Master ends up in the Tower Grey Prison in England, while Cheng Lan ends up in a prison in Russia. Schwarzenegger’s role in the film is a little out-of-place and bizarre. He plays James Hook (as in pirate Captain James Hook, albeit with Schwarzenegger’s heavy German accent), who acts as a prison warden for the Tower Grey Prison, but he’s decked out the whole time in a red and white pirate suit. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

Meanwhile, the story’s main character is a Brit named Jonathan Green (played by Jason Flemyng), who is shown being chased off the estate of a nobleman called Lord Dudley (played by Charles Dance), who is very upset with Jonathan. Why? Because Lord Dudley doesn’t want Jonathan to be with his daughter Miss Dudley (played by Anna Churina), a somewhat prissy heiress who’s in love with Jonathan.

The movie doesn’t make it clear if Miss Dudley and Jonathan are married or not. The “miss” title in her name implies that she’s not married, but then later in the movie, she refers to Jonathan as her “husband.” Whatever their marital status, Jonathan and Miss Dudley have a son together, who’s about 4 or 5 years old, so Lord Dudley can’t get rid of Jonathan that easily.

After being banished from the Dudley estate, Jonathan travels to Russia, where he saw an ancient creature with countless eyes called Viy, which has the ability to read minds. There are also Russians called Cossacks who can turn into creatures. It’s just an excuse to pile on some visual effects that don’t do much to improve this poorly written story.

Jonathan ends up in a Russian prison, and there’s a silly plot development involving a messenger pigeon that leads to Jonathan taking it upon himself to rescuing Master and Cheng Lan; saving the Great Dragon; defeating the villains led by the witch; and going back to England to reunite with Miss Dudley and their son so they can all live happily ever after. Jonathan is released from the prison by Peter the Great, also known as Iron Mask (played by Yuri Kolokolnikov), who’s kind of a useless and annoying character, even though the movie’s title was named for him. Rutger Hauer (who died in 2019) has a much smaller and forgettable role as an ambassador character.

As you can imagine, this loopy saga involves a lot of globetrotting, and there are huge portions of the film that take place on a pirate ship (cue the swashbuckling) and on battle fields. And presumably to appeal to kids, the movie has a creature that looks like a cute blue stuffed toy monkey with wings. This CGI-created creature tags along with Jonathan when he goes to rescue Cheng Lan while they travel by carriage and are confronted by a gang of thieves.

For her protection, Cheng Lan has disguised herself as a teenage boy. It’s not a convincing disguise, but she manages to fool Jonathan for most of the story anyway. Miss Dudley hears that Jonathan has gone to rescue a beautiful princess, and she gets jealous. So there’s a dumb subplot of Miss Dudley flouncing off to Russia to try to track down her man.

Miss Dudley ends up disguising herself briefly as a male pirate to get on board a ship that’s bound for China. Just like Cheng Lan, Miss Dudley also looks very unconvincing “disguised” as someone of the opposite sex. The movie can’t even get it right when it dresses up women up in drag. Whatever this fantasy world is in “Iron Mask,” it’s clear that it’s a world where the “good” women aren’t taken seriously as men are taken seriously, when it comes to being strong leaders and fighters, so the women have to disguise themselves as men to get things done. However, the movie has no problem making the chief villain a woman who doesn’t disguise herself as a man.

There’s also some underlying sexism when James Hook comments on an elderly man who died in the Tower Grey Prison: “At least he died happy,” and adds an explanation for why this man died happy: “As far as I know, he hasn’t seen a woman in 30 years.”

James Hook and Master have an inevitable fight scene where there’s more crappy dialogue that’s fails miserably at being funny. While the two adversaries are fighting with swords, James Hook’s hair gets cut off, while Master’s long beard gets shortened. Master tells Hook, “You look better this way.” Hook comments to Master on his new look: “You look younger.” Master replies, “Do I?” And then they resume fighting.

Cheesy jokes aside, “Iron Mask” looks like a movie made by people who wanted to waste millions in production money to make a live-action version of a very badly conceived cartoon. The characters are bland and unappealing. And the actors seem to know it too, because there’s no real enthusiasm or sincerity in their performances. And the amateurish direction gives the impression that a robot could’ve done a better job directing this movie. There are bad movies that are sometimes fun to watch, but “Iron Mask” is just a cringeworthy chore to watch.

Lionsgate released “Iron Mask” on digital and VOD on November 20, 2020, and on Blu-ray and DVD on November 24, 2020.

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