Reflecting our nation's current ambivalence about the CIA -- which is neither as hostile as it was during and after the Vietnam War nor as gung-ho as it was in the early days of the Cold War -- "The Recruit" follows the lead of 2001's "Spy Game". The filmmakers strive for an old-fashioned spy thriller while acknowledging the immorality and cold-bloodedness demanded by the clandestine organization. The top-billed Al Pacino
and Colin Farrell bring plenty of emotional oomph to their shallow and routine characters, but audiences may find these spy games somewhat disappointing.
The film's major twist is telegraphed early and often, so it hits with the impact of a soft pillow. The film's strength lies in director Roger Donaldson
's depiction of the recruitment and training of potential CIA agents. This does generate dramatic heat, while an edgy romance between Farrell and fellow trainee Bridget Moynahan
produces its own kind of sparks. All of which may add up to a modest boxoffice success.
Pacino's veteran agent Walter Burke
has two maxims: "Trust no one" and "Nothing is what it seems". This goes double, of course, for audiences watching movie thrillers. However, the decision by writers Roger Towne
, Kurt Wimmer
and Mitch Glazer
to allow Walter to repeat these phrases constantly, while feeding the overall atmosphere of paranoia, does undermine many of the film's double reverses.
Farrell's James Clayton, a computer whiz with an appealing rebellious streak, gets recruited by Walter, who shepherds him through training at a CIA boot camp called "the Farm." Walter lures James to the Company with the tantalizing prospect that his father, killed mysteriously in a plane crash in South America a decade earlier, was himself a "spook." This also fulfills the tried-but-true gambit of the veteran officer serving as a father figure to the green rookie.
All recruits eye one another nervously. James and fellow recruit Layla (Moynahan) quickly develop a hot-and-cold sexual attraction made all the more difficult by their re-education as liars and sneaks. Meanwhile, Zack (Gabriel Macht
) arouses James' suspicions, possibly because he's too all-American blond. Their training sessions represent the film's strongest moments as everyone works to master the lethal arts. It's Harry Potter
's wizards school for antisocial grown-ups.
Once the film abandons the Farm to move all the characters back to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., the film veers into a much more conventional mode. Plus, we're already prepped not to trust or believe anyone's mission -- not James', not Layla's and not, for that matter, Walter's.
Pacino has gotten to the point in his career that he can get away with a one-note performance such as this because he plays that one note so beautifully. It's terrific fun to watch him tear into his outsized character with such relish. Farrell has to work awfully hard to hold his own in scenes with Pacino. Not without his own charisma, however, Farrell does manage. Moynahan, meanwhile brings cool intelligence and heated eroticism to Layla, letting us read her enigmatic behavior more than one way.
Donaldson is slowly working his way through the federal government in search of thrillers. Having done solid and gripping films about the White House ("Thirteen Days") and the Pentagon ("No Way Out"), he certainly finds a new way to deal with the old war horse that is the CIA. (He may have his work cut out for him when he hits the Department of Agriculture, though.) But the script betrays him in the second half with sheer silliness. Spies talk to one another over the open lines of a cell phone, and an agent sneaks into another agent's office while she is at lunch. The third act of betrayal and double betrayal is such a foregone conclusion that even James and Layla getting back together after their romance down on the Farm adds little spark.
The film does benefit from Stuart Dryburgh
's crisp lensing and Andrew McAlpine
's meticulous renditions of such inner sanctums as CIA headquarters and the creepy realm of the Farm.
Buena Vista Pictures
Touchstone Pictures/Spyglass Entertainment
Credits: Director: Roger Donaldson; Screenwriters: Roger Towne
, Kurt Wimmer
, Mitch Glazer; Producers: Roger Birnbaum
, Jeff Apple
, Gary Barber; Executive producers: Jonathan Glickman
, Ric Kidney; Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh; Production designer: Andrew McAlpine; Music: KIaus Badelt; Costume designer: Beatrix Aruna Pasztor; Editor: David Rosenbloom
. Cast: Walter Burke: Al Pacino; James Clayton: Colin Farrell; Layla: Bridget Moynahan; Zack: Gabriel Macht; Ronnie: Mike Realba.
MPAA rating PG-13, running time 115 minutes.