Two centuries before James Bond 007, there was Agent 355, a lady spy on George Washington’s side during the American Revolutionary War who helped identify the turncoat Benedict Arnold. Her name was hidden from history, but her code number has been claimed by this slick and grim espionage flick that aspires to become an all-star, all-female franchise — the Spice Girls version of Bond. Jessica Chastain, a producer and star of the movie, even used Twitter to crowdsource casting suggestions for a “#BondBoy.”
Why not? But we’re going to need a better plot than one built around a bunch of heroes and terrorists chasing after yet another doomsday gizmo. Chastain’s Mace Browne, a C.I.A. workaholic repulsed by romantic commitment, is hellbent on securing a one-of-a-kind cyber-whatsit able to hack into and hijack any computer-controlled device on the planet, from a power grid to a plane. This device could start World War III, Mace warns an MI6 computer whiz, Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), in a rusty clunker of a line that warns the audience that the only novelty in Simon Kinberg’s thriller is the cast. It doesn’t take a super sleuth to fill in the rest. There will be lectures on teamwork, confessions squeezed out “the easy way or the hard way” and speeches about the invisible front lines of modern warfare, all rote hubbub building toward a blowout gun battle that makes sure to set aside a bad boyfriend for a sequel.
But what a cast. Chastain and Nyong’o rumble with Diane Kruger, peer pressure Penélope Cruz and are struck dumb by Fan Bingbing, who saunters in halfway through to shake things up. Individually, the women represent the differing national security interests of the United States, England, Germany, Colombia and China; their pitiful male colleagues, however — the lovesick partner (Sebastian Stan) who uses a sting operation to make Mace playact as his fiancée, the distrustful boss (Sylvester Groth) who diagnoses Kruger’s near-feral street fighter with daddy issues — make a case for the women to form a feminist Brawlers Without Borders.
Kinberg and Theresa Rebeck’s screenplay races through five continents, and as many betrayals and switcheroos. (The cinematographer, Tim Maurice-Jones, seems most inspired by Shanghai’s iridescent neon blues.) The filmmaking deserves credit for refusing to leer as the ladies convincingly kick and punch — all focus is on the stunts, not on sex appeal.
Yet there’s a sense that “The 355” felt forced to pick between being sincere or being fun. It chose solemnity. As a result, it’s flat-footed even when the setups yearn to be playful. Viewers are not invited to giggle when a pursuit detours into a men-only bathhouse, or at a surreal moment in an undercover sequence when Chastain rips off her red wig disguise to reveal … her own identical red hair. The drums thunder as though they’re dead-serious about proving that women can make an expensive adventure that’s every bit as banal as the ones that boys crank out every month with basically the same plot. At least Cruz is allowed to get a laugh in a scene where her married soccer mom learns to flirt with a patsy. The twinkle in her eyes looks just like Sean Connery’s seductive gleam.
Rated PG-13 for copious male corpses. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. In theaters.