The Recruit

After a zingy setup that slips us inside the CIA's secretraining ground — known as the Farm — The Recruit runs so many scams on its characters and its audience that you won't give a damn what happens. Al Pacino and co-star Colin Farrell sure don't. Maybe that'shy they hijack the desperately gimmicky script by Roger Towne, Burt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer and turn it into a knockabout acting class. Be grateful. Unlike the movie, these guys really are worth watching. I am a scary judge of talent," says Pacino, giving Farrell anpproving once-over. Pacino isn't speaking for himself, thoughe might as well be: an old pro tipping his hat to a newcomer.

Farrell, who most recently gave Tom Cruise hell in Minority Report, is a young Irish actor of promising gifts. His eyes reflect intelligence and danger, a nice change from the roids-are-us the spring of Freddie Prinze Jr. Pacino seems engaged by Farrell (if not by the script) and eggs him on like trainer who wants to see what his show pony can do. They put on quite a display.

Pacino plays Walter Burke, a CIA recruiter with his eye on James Clayton (Farrell), a computer genius who graduated atop his class at MIT. Deception is in James' blood (his late fatheras CIA), and he signs on for boot camp. With the witty collaboration of director Roger Donaldson (Thirteen Days, No Way Out), the film turns the CIA into a virtual Actors Studio, with Pacino conducting the master class.

"Nothing is what it seems," Walter tells the recruits, reciting the CIA maxim like a lesson plan in Acting 101. What is acting anyway but the art of lying persuasively? The same goes for spying. The real fun of The Recruit is watching Farrell, 26, go mano a mano with Pacino, 62.

"You're agile," Walter tells James, drawling the word and dragging it out (aaah-gile) as if to savor its taste. He has a rapt audience. Bridget Moynahan as Layla and Gabriel Macht as Jack, James' fellow recruits, hang on the old man's every word. You will, too. What Pacino is doing with this role isn't really acting (check out Insomnia for that), it's shameless showing off. But that's exactly what the role calls for.

Walter drives his students (er, recruits) to a local bar, where they are told to return to the parking lot with someone "who intends to have sex with them." It will come in handy later when they have to play a love scene. Farrell and Moynahan (much riskier here than in the sodden The Sum of All Fears, with Ben Affleck) do exactly that and perform with sexy, sweaty verisimilitude.

Next up, Walter teaches the art of disguise, of pretending to be someone else. He instructs them in surveillance, on observing others and picking up patterns of behavior. The practical stuff — handling guns, explosives, parachutes — will come in handy for the action scenes. But the stunts pale next to the mind games that are the essential part of the process: spying and acting. It's a shame, really, that The Recruit deteriorates so quickly into formula after the scenes on the Farm. Donaldson stages action with fierce finesse until the plot clogs up the works.

Things improve near the end when Walter rants about being old-school and unappreciated. Pacino plays these scenes with a Shakespearean fury. Farrell reacts, in character, by going inside. Underplaying against a force of nature is a smart move — Pacino learned that while acting with Marlon Brando in The Godfather — and Farrell knows it. As a thriller, The Recruit is merely an entertaining ride. But remember: Nothing is what it seems. It's the subtext — two actors from different generations taking each other out with skill and affection — that counts. The CIA should be proud.

From The Archives Issue 916: February 20, 2003