From the avalanche of advertising, Touchstone/Buena Vista/Disney would have folks think that The Recruit is an inside look at the C.I.A. and how it recruits and trains its agents. After seeing the film, if you believe that, we’ve got a bridge to sell you. Not that it necessarily matters–The Recruit is the sort of mass market film that audiences will go to, mostly to see Al Pacino and current hotty Colin Farrell. It’s commercial, mass market fare, and while those folks at the multiplex are not so foolish as to believe this stuff, they’ll willingly settle in, suspend disbelief (even when greatly challenged) and have a good enough time.
Farrell, who first gained notice in Tigerland and went on to play second banana to Tom Cruise in Minority Report, plays James Clayton who’s at the top of his class at M.I.T. while tending bar to pay his way and still finding time to develop a computer program that is capable of co-opting all broadcast channels. He wows ‘em all at a job recruitment fair, including Walter Burke (Pacino), a C.I.A. veteran who is a senior instructor in the agency’s training programs. (That’s where they put the veteran agents who have come in out of the cold, as an earlier spy vehicle put it.)
James yearns for information about his late father who worked for Shell Oil; Ed Clayton presumably died in a plane crash in Peru when James was 12, but no body was found and James’ search has led him nowhere.Burke plays on James’ suspicions that his Dad was a C.I.A. agent, as well as on his emotional neediness for a strong father figure and he manages to get James interested.
There’s a written exam and a series of psychological interviews (presented tongue-in-cheek) that end up with the question, "Would you prefer to ride on a train, dance in the rain, or feel no pain?" The answer matters little, since it is necessary to have James pass in order to get to training camp, known as "The Farm." There Burke gives the entering class their introductory pep talk ("We believe in good and evil. We choose good.") as well as a warning ("You’ve stepped through the looking glass. Nothing is what it seems.")
The training begins, including everything from tai chi to weapons, demolition to surveillance devices. Burke has a disconcerting habit of spying on his trainees, observing them through monitors; the whole joint must be bugged. There are several scenes in which lie detector tests are used, but it isn’t clear whether this is to test the enemy or to learn to fool the test if caught. It does, however, provide a setup for the deceptive game-playing which has become the order of the day. Field training operations begin and the plot thickens, especially with the introduction of a love interest between James and lovely Layla (Bridget Moynahan), another trainee. Because she speaks Farsi, she’s already suspect. (That’s what things have come to in our polarized world, alas.)
With a series of turns and surprises, the plot-driven story builds to a rapidly-twisting conclusion, in which, indeed, nothing is as it seems. If it all sags a bit in the middle, it does pick up again quickly enough so that interest is sustained. But, like cotton candy, it all evaporates right after it’s over. Only the Pacino and Farrell roles are drawn beyond the lightest sketching, and they are barely more than one-dimensional. James’ entire motivation is carried by the lost father idea; little else about him is fleshed out. Farrell is a charismatic presence on screen, but his acting potential will get lost in playing roles like these. Blame it on–who? the makeup artist?–that he wears a two day growth of beard throughout the film. This fashion victim look is soooo 90’s and it’s hard to believe a recruit would be allowed to go unshaven.
Pacino plays this role as he has others lately (see for example, Insomnia)–the embittered grizzled veteran with a quick mouth. He’s a great American actor, working in stuff like this only to collect a big paycheck.And he has such a scruffy look here, it’s a wonder the C.I.A. didn’t throw him out long ago.