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In ‘The 355,’ spy sisterhood is powerful (even if the movie it’s in isn’t)

From left: Penélope Cruz, Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger, and Lupita Nyong'o in "The 355."Universal Pictures via AP

Say this for the title of “The 355″: It provides a history lesson. There was an American female spy during the Revolutionary War, and her code name was Agent 355. That’s quite interesting, isn’t it? Certainly, it’s more interesting than this just-OK contemporary international spy thriller.

The reason for the title is that “The 355″ comes with a twist: The spies, or at least the important ones, are female. They do all the standard high-gloss espionage things: gunplay, high-tech sleuthing, martial arts, being impervious to serious injury, clumsy quippiness. It’s just that they often have to do those things wearing heels and dresses with plunging necklines. There’s a shot where Jessica Chastain, wearing a strapless gown, bends over to bash a bad guy, and as things are just about to reach the wardrobe-malfunction stage the camera cuts away. It’s rather gallant, actually.


Jessica Chastain in "The 355."Robert Viglasky/Universal Pictures via AP

The MacGuffin here is a stolen “data key,” explains CIA agent Mace Brown (Chastain), “that can get into any closed system on the planet.” Uh-oh? Double secret uh-oh. This device will go to the highest Bond-villain-level bidder unless Mace can retrieve it. She enlists the help of an MI6 pal (Lupita Nyong’o). A German agent (Diane Kruger) is in hot pursuit, too, as is a Chinese operative (Fan Bingbing). Espionage sisterhood really is powerful.

A therapist also gets caught up in this, which seems a bit silly. But since she’s played by Penélope Cruz, that’s OK. Like Nyong’o and (especially) Kruger, Cruz emerges from “The 355″ with honor intact. The same cannot be said for Chastain, who’s one of the producers. It’s true that compared to her most recent performance, as Tammy Faye Bakker, in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” she seems positively Streepian here. But the comparison to her previous turn as a CIA agent, in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), does not flatter.


The one problem with Cruz’s presence is that it makes you ponder how much more interesting “The 355″ would have been if Pedro Almodóvar had made it. Instead, the director is Simon Kinberg (”X-Men: Dark Phoenix”). He also wrote the script, with Theresa Rebeck. The dialogue is as pedestrian as the plotting is far-fetched. “Marie, you’re good at everything except taking orders,” Kruger’s boss tells her. “You can be damn sure the next blood won’t be mine,” says a CIA agent played by Sebastian Stan. He and Édgar Ramírez get to be handsome and slimy (Stan especially).

In fairness, there’s one very funny line. A Chechen oligarch is hitting on Cruz — the man may be evil, but he’s not stupid — and Kruger rescues her with a rather glorious same-sex dismissal.

Some actor playing a dead guy, left, and Lupita Nyong'o in "The 355."Robert Viglasky/Universal Pictures via AP

In further fairness, the movie moves along at a mostly steady clip. It goes from Colombia (a drug lord’s compound, check) to CIA headquarters (check) to Paris (a chase on the Metro, check) to London (to get Nyong’o on board) to Morocco (shades of the “Bourne” movies) to Shanghai (why not?) to Washington, D.C. With frequent-flyer mileage like that, who needs continuity?

About 90 minutes in, things take an uncharacteristically nasty turn. The nastiness is highly implausible, even by “355″ standards — and that’s saying something — but, still, it’s nasty, and that throws things off. What had been slick emptiness in a diverting sort of way now becomes curdled slick emptiness in a look-at-your-watch sort of way. It’s true that if “The 355″ were streaming you could just fast forward a bit, but it’s not. It’s just in theaters, so you can’t.



THE 355

Directed by Simon Kinberg. Written by Kinberg and Theresa Rebeck. Starring Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Lupita Nyong’o, Fan Bingbing, Sebastian Stan, Édgar Ramírez. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 123 minutes. PG-13 (strong violence, brief strong language, and suggestive material). In English, with a smattering of Spanish, French, German, and Chinese, with subtitles.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.