In general, the less time the actors in "The 355" spend speaking English, the better they come off.
Spanish, German, Russian and French are just a few of the languages trotted out in the espionage thriller, which tries to broaden its overseas appeal by casting a wide net in its choice of actors and locations. Basically, every woman who didn't get into "Ocean's Eight" is here, including Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger, Penélope Cruz and Lupita Nyong'o as the titular network of spies, who are trying to get their hands on a drive that contains a super-weapon or important information or something.
So, what kind of important information? It's a little hazy. Directed by screenwriter Simon Kinberg, "355" is moderately entertaining in individual scenes, which feature the quartet surveilling an auction of priceless artifacts or gathering intel at a street festival. But the scenes don't hold together because the plot engine is so sputtery.
Another issue is the villain. To reveal who he is would be a spoiler, although not an interesting spoiler. Neither the character nor the actor who plays him has much to offer in the evildoing department. That the bad guy is a guy also is disappointing. The 007 and "Mission: Impossible" films that "355" cribs from mostly have been too chicken to cast a woman as a supervillain but you'd think this movie would be willing to go there. You know Jessica Lange would kill as a purring, evil mastermind.
The real problem, though, is the script by Kinberg (who has written a lot of "X-Men" movies) and Theresa Rebeck.
When the dialogue is in other languages, it's not so noticeable but when Nyong'o, in particular, speaks, it's often risible. There's the scene where Kruger whips out a gun with a barrel about 10 inches long, causing Nyong'o to exclaim, "Looks like she's armed!" Sure does! Nyong'o is supposed to be the computer genius in the group but it's hard to swallow her supposed intellect when the script keeps making her sound like a befuddled mathlete ("These algorithms are beyond anything I've ever seen!").
It might help if "355" had more of a sense of humor. Chastain gets in a few saucy zingers and Cruz has fun being a secret agent who very much does not want to be a secret agent but the tone is surprisingly grim. "Ocean's Eight" erred in the opposite direction — it was so lightweight you could have popped it. But a caper movie such as this really needs jokes to keep things light between execution-style slaughters.
Eventually, I decided the best way to approach Nyongo's line readings was to pretend she's trying to do some sort of meta-commentary on the hard-to-swallow movie she's acting in. Toward the end, for instance, when she says, "We've been erased. Made invisible," I was thinking, "Not yet, Lupita. But give your movie a week in theaters and it will be."
** out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for strong violence and action.
Where: In area theaters.