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The Recruit   C

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Roger Donaldson
Writers: Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer, Mitch Glazer
Cast: Al Pacino, Colin Farrell, Bridget Moynahan, Gabriel Macht, Mike Realba, Dom Fiore.

Review by Rob Vaux

What can you do when the film you're making can't go as far as you'd like? The Recruit earns marks as a passively entertaining whirlygig, but it clearly has higher ambitions than that. That's where it stumbles. Its Clancy-esque plot about a CIA trainee thrown into a world of deception feels weightier than it is, with would-be twists than never quite coalesce. Director Roger Donaldson knocked one out of the park with Thirteen Days. Here, he's saddled with much more pedestrian material, and while he gives it the old college try, the result has more lost potential than real suspense.

Training spies can make for a fascinating subject -- not the quick-cut MTV montages of XXX and the like, but a real examination of how one learns to be a sneaky bastard for queen and country. The Recruit does best while focusing on that process, starting with Al Pacino as grizzled old senior spook Walter Burke. The actor is uniquely suited for deceptive, slightly infernal father figures like Burke; as we watch him induct hotshot computer whiz James Clayton (Colin Farrell, cooler than any tech geek yet living) into the Company, we can see hopeful signs of a meaty thriller to come. Clayton is taken to the Farm (the CIA's training facility), where he receives a barrage of new skills in addition to knocking boots with a fellow trainee (Bridget Moynahan) of the scorching-hot supermodel type that I'm sure packs every rank of the federal government. The early sequences utilize a lot of routine story twists, but also provide a fair amount of diversion. While The Recruit pays lip service to the high-tech toys that are a staple of the genre, it endeavors to display more old-fashioned means of espionage. Burke teaches his young protégés low-tech techniques -- shadowing, securing marks, spotting lies, and the like -- while reveling in the you-can't-trust-anyone head games that come with the job. It's all intended to convey the fascinating nut-and-bolts details of spycraft, and during the fist half, it works fairly well. Well enough to engage us, anyway.

The film slides downhill once it leaves these grounds. Clayton departs the Farm, only to find himself in a standard-issue scheme to steal an all-powerful computer widget (or something), leaving us to pick our way through a morass of tedious plot exposition and bewildering facts to keep straight. The down-to-earth spy techniques he learned early on come back into play here, only without the same interest level. They feel flaccid and dull, traits matched by the faux urgency The Recruit vainly tries to instill in the action. It doesn't help that the trailers reveal far more than they should (note to the advertising department: YOU RUINED THE SURPRISE!), leaving us with few doubts as to where Clayton's search will take him. Donaldson manages some nice flourishes here and there, but they can't salvage the malaise that settles over The Recruit like a pall.

That leaves Pacino and Farrell to keep us occupied, and while they're too appealing to let things get out of hand, neither can they entirely banish the film's shortcomings. Farrell is charismatic enough for the lead, though he was much more compelling in Minority Report, and frankly, he's too good-looking to pass off as a credible spook. It takes more than hiking up his collar and shuffling in the shadows to pull attention away from himself, and Farrell's current hunk du jour status makes Clayton more a movie star vehicle than a real character. As for Pacino, he plays Burke as a variable riff on earlier roles: fun, certainly, but nothing we haven't seen before. Without some substance to support them, the two can do little more than charm us with their presence and keep boredom at bay.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with just being diverting. January releases rarely offer much better, and while The Recruit has nothing anyone will remember come spring, we probably shouldn't expect so much. It's cinematic comfort food, filling us up until more nourishing fare comes along. It's a pity the filmmakers couldn't do more with it. They clearly had the opportunity, and something really worthwhile could have come out of it. As it is, The Recruit merely coasts on the possibilities, instead of bringing them to life.

Review published 02.03.2003.

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