The 355 film review: Action spy caper warms up after a slow start to pack a lovely punch

·3-min read
 (Handout)
(Handout)

Ocean’s 8 + 007 = fun. Right? Nah, mate. The first twenty minutes of this bloody spy thriller-cum-caper suggest director Simon Kinberg has no idea how to make that formula work. A ruthless CIA agent, Mace (Jessica Chastain), locks horns with the extremely ruthless Maria (Diane Kruger), over a ground-breaking cyber doodad “that could start WW3”. As the stroppy spies grunt and growl, I did my own maths and decided these glossy shenanigans would add up to zilch.

But then Lupita Nyong’o appears. O, Lupita! She plays Mace’s old MI6 pal Khadijah, a grave yet witty Londoner first seen giving a lecture on cyber safety. Nyong’o’s accent is spot-on, and from the minute she opens her mouth the film improves.

Penelope Cruz has a similarly galvanising effect as Graciela, a Colombian psychologist/therapist and devoted wife and mother, who nevertheless spends a passionate night with troubled turncoat, Luis (Edgar Ramirez). Neither Khadijah or Graciela want to get involved in saving the world, but they’re persuaded to come on board, and their well-rounded selves ensure the globe-trotting that ensues is a blast.

Things pick up from the moment Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) arrives on the scene (Handout)
Things pick up from the moment Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) arrives on the scene (Handout)

Kinberg and his co-writer Theresa Rebeck deserve some credit. The dialogue, when the women have a chance to shoot the breeze, is punchy. Khadijah discusses bum holes, Graciela reacts like a human being when, at a surreal auction, she’s forced to play the part of a vamp. These actresses can do tragedy and, of course, are brilliant comedians (did you see Nyong’o’s zombie movie Little Monsters? Have you watched Cruz in Almodóvar?). The surprise is that in an action movie they are allowed to make us chuckle, as well as cry, over and over again.

In terms of fight scenes, it’s the film’s fifth star who makes the biggest impression. Bingbing Fan (playing someone it would be a spoiler to reveal), is not only insanely charismatic and poised, but ferociously nimble with a stick. And for those more interested in garb than guns, the casual, elegantly rumpled outfits worn by Khadijah and Graciela are a highlight.

Bingbing Fan, left, is charismatic, poised yet ferociously nimble (Handout)
Bingbing Fan, left, is charismatic, poised yet ferociously nimble (Handout)

Chastain produced the film, which makes it especially weird that Mace is always the least enticing ingredient in the mix. The actress, squeezed into all kinds of sexy outfits, simply doesn’t look as comfortable as her co-stars. She’s probably the biggest name here (though it’s a fairly close-run thing), and her presence will surely attract fans of Zero Dark Thirty and Molly’s Game. But if there’s a sequel - and the coy ending certainly suggests there will be - Chastain needs to get her act together. That said, she does give someone a great knuckle sandwich.

The title is a historical reference (355 was the code name of a female spy, active during the American Revolution). Will we be talking about this movie in a few hundred years? Probably not. But in the here and now, these agents of destruction pack a lovely punch.

124mins, cert 12A.In cinemas now

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