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There's a general idea in show business that January is where movies go to die, a dumpster month for studios looking to quietly burn off the cursed and broken projects still lingering in last year's outbox. The fact that The 355 has landed there twice now (it was originally scheduled for release at the start of 2021, then delayed for COVID) fits pretty neatly into that narrative: Why else would a big-budget action film starring a cadre of internationally famous actresses slink so quietly into the post-holiday wasteland? A bland marketing campaign didn't help; neither did a corny, almost comically generic trailer. So it's a nice surprise to find out that the movie (in theaters this Friday and on Peacock Feb. 25) is frequently fun and far smarter than your average January-boneyard bear — a sleek popcorn spy flick that deserves better than slow death by in-flight entertainment, though that's probably its destiny.

The story begins, purposefully or not, in a wash of testosterone: a Colombian drug lord, a malevolent-rich-guy buyer, a SWAT team swarm emerging from the jungle. Except the product for sale isn't powder; it's some of kind of dark-web data key powerful enough to take down entire city grids and make airplanes fall from the sky. (As in most movies like this, the technology is generally so advanced it might as well be a wizard wand). When the narco's smartphone-size death star lands in the hands of a scared SWAT member (The Undoing's Edgar Ramirez), CIA agents Mason "Mace" Brown (Jessica Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) are sent to Paris to retrieve it. Unfortunately, a German agent named Marie (Diane Kruger) has the same goal, and a better grasp of the French Metro system; the end-times key gets away.

In the aftermath Mace turns to an old friend, Khadijah (Lupita Nyong'o), a former MI6 agent now working in London as a TED-talky tech specialist. This is the kind of crime she's made for, but a second failed attempt leaves them only with fewer bullets and an extremely reluctant new field agent: Penelope Cruz's Graciela, a staff psychologist for Colombian intelligence who would very much like to be excused from this narrative and go home to her husband and kids. Instead she's conscripted into the team, along with Marie ("the enemy of my enemy is my friend") and eventually Lin Mi Sheng (Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing), another agent with a singular gift for IT. Hot pursuits in Moroccan souks and Shanghai high-rises follow, as they are wont to do when the fate of the free world is at stake; so, inevitably, does female bonding and a not-small body count.

The script, by Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the X-Men franchise), who also directed, and Theresa Rebeck (Smash), is both ludicrous and functional: One-liners and weapons (a fist, a lamp, even an oyster shell) fly; double crosses are flipped and tripled back again. The familiar marks 355 hits  — sneering, stubbled villains; glittery international set pieces; things that go boom — follow the smoothed-down grooves of a thousand other thrillers, and everyone in it is so ridiculously good-looking they probably should have called it Only 10s. But the story moves along crisply, and the stars, who have all easily been in better films, elevate the material so breezily they tend to make even the most ludicrous moments float.

Also tucked into the broad flash and fight-clubbiness of the plot are keener little character notes: Chastain's Mace kills large men with calm efficiency, but when she's confronted with high scaffolding she stops to draw a sharp breath, then skip-walks like an awkward stork (or more refreshingly, a recognizable human). And Cruz's panicked, charming Graciela, the token civilian, finds uses for her therapy skills that actually make sense; when she and Nyong'o are on screen, it's not hard to remember there are at least two Oscars in the room. (The fact that all but one of the leads is over 40, though age is never mentioned or even implied, feels radical in its own way too). Maybe January will bury The 355, but frankly it feels like the kind of movie bleak mid-winter was made for: Starry, silly escapism with pop-feminist flare and a passport. Grade: B

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