The Recruit brings us vaudeville night at the CIA.

The Recruit brings us vaudeville night at the CIA.

The Recruit brings us vaudeville night at the CIA.

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Jan. 31 2003 1:09 PM

Stupid Spy Tricks

The Recruit brings us vaudeville night at the CIA.

Pacino and Farrell in The Recruit
Bite scenery, chew, swallow, repeat

The mystery at the heart of The Recruit (Touchstone) is whether Al Pacino is playing an insane but good CIA instructor or an insane but evil CIA instructor. The only thing that isn't in question is that the character is barking mad, and that Pacino's comfort zone as an actor is now wacko mode exclusively: What would stretch him would be a serious, low-key exchange in which he didn't bug his eyes and put whimsical italics around every line, or shamble through a scene in something other than a fog of solipsism.

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In the brilliantly directed Insomnia (2002), Pacino used his air of manic stuporousness to elicit an astounding amount of sympathy, but TheRecruit is like vaudeville night at Bellevue. He plays the harmonica. He does magic tricks. He delivers yeasty, Mamety spiels about nothing being what it seems. Except that he's exactly what he seems: The lights are on (klieg lights, floodlights, blinking Christmas lights) but the owner is somewhere between Saturn and Uranus. The screenplay (credited to Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer, and Mitch Glazer) has been polished to give the star nothing but showoff quips and gonzo riffs: "You want answers, you're in the wrong car, kid. I only have secrets." Teaching his CIA students to gauge truthfulness, he says, "Are my pupils dilated? I could be bluffing." But there's no meaningful distinction in this performance between truth and fiction. Pacino is in some post-Method universe where every line is a grandiose put-on.

So is The Recruit. The movie, directed by Roger Donaldson, is a conjurer's trick that delights for about an hour, then spirals into idiocy. The young protagonist, James Clayton, is played by Colin Farrell, a smart, live-wire actor with maybe five more years until his air of dissipation stops being so roguishly attractive and he thickens into the next Oliver Reed. Clayton is some sort of MIT computer whiz whose father might or might not have been a CIA spook when his plane went down in 1990. (Will he ever learn the truth? Or is he doomed never to know why his dad was always whispering into his Seiko?) When Pacino's Walter Burke shows up to recruit him while he's tending bar, Clayton asks in a hush, "Would I have to kill anyone?" and Pacino leans in and says, with popeyed glee, "Would ya like to?"

That's probably the high point of the movie. After that, Clayton goes with Burke to CIA headquarters and then "the farm," a woodsy Virginia compound where candidates learn to shoot, demolish, tail, bug, role-play, and deceive one another as practice for a life of subterfuge. Donaldson keeps the pacing lickety-split, the music wacka-wacka, and the frame bustling: Helicopters take off and descend; gung-ho lectures punctuate target practice, mock assassinations, and car bombings. This is the only school in which the pupils can be legitimately monitored—taught to spy while being unabashedly spied on. And Burke keeps a beady eye on Clayton as he puts the moves on another student, Layla—played by Bridget Moynahan, one of those twentyish, dark, short-haired, long-limbed model types that producers and studios like to have around for set beautification.

Clayton and Layla spend the rest of The Recruit mentally undressing and deceiving each another, and it isn't until the last scene that you know who's for real and who's duplicitous—by which point you'll have long stopped caring. The only thing real about this movie is the filmmakers' dependence on twists and reversals in lieu of character and plot. They're so intent on catching you off guard that they end up constructing a weird and implausible pyramid of motives and countermotives. How, you wonder, can they end this thing? Will it be a put-on, like the 1997 The Game (ugh)? Will it find a middle ground like Spy Game (2000)—which largely worked because of the freaky resemblance between Robert Redford and his younger, chipmunk-cheeked alter ego, Brad Pitt? Will it turn into a satanic-mentor splatterfest, like Training Day (2001)? Given the lack of conviction, each option is somehow more dispiriting than the last.

The sad part is that this is the best time imaginable for a new-era CIA recruitment saga: a thriller that would explore, in the manner of Graham Greene or the pre-perestroika John Le Carré, the psychology of people with a fanatical dedication to keeping their country safe but a readiness to learn from the mistakes (both tactical and moral) of the Cold War. And there's something obscene about the way, on the eve of war, The Recruit exploits our urgent curiosity about the modern art of intelligence gathering, then high-tails it to Stupidville—to a world of crosses and double-crosses that exists only in the minds of studio heads and whorish screenwriters. Pacino is a good mascot for The Recruit: a hambone in a vacuum.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.