Director : Roger Donaldson
Screenplay : Roger Towne and Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Al Pacino (Walter Burke), Colin Farrell (James Clayton), Bridget Moynahan (Layla Moore), Gabriel Macht (Zack), Kenneth Mitchell (Alan), Brian Rhodes (Psychiatrist), Eugene Lipinski (Husky Man)
Over the years, Al Pacino has gotten so good at chewing the scenery that it’s easy to imagine him doing it in his sleep. In The Recruit, he’s not exactly sleep-chewing, but it’s pretty close as he plays Walter Burke, a weathered, 25-year veteran of the CIA who recruits a young MIT computer genius named James Clayton (Colin Farrell). While it is ostensibly James’ movie, it is Burke who we remember most clearly because he’s always, incessantly talking. He’s a smooth operator with a grizzled exterior, an aging superagent-turned-instructor who becomes a father-figure, mentor, and potential villain all wrapped up in one—and Pacino relishes every calculated minute of it.
For those who don’t like too much scenery-chewing, The Recruit will not play as well. It’s twisty-turny plotline, concocted by three writers working separately (Robert Towne, Kurt Wimmer, and Mitch Glazer) is clever, but not inordinately so. The outcome of the narrative becomes fairly obvious early on, but the writers keep it just enigmatic enough to let doubt linger in the back of your mind—maybe it’s not so obvious after all? Or maybe it is. Either way, Pacino gets to chew that scenery.
When Pacino is not on screen, the story focuses on James and his relationship with a fellow CIA recruit, Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan), who gives him the cold shoulder at first, but gradually warms to his unshaven charms. Ever since his stateside debut in Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland (2001), Farrell has worked his natural charm to its utmost, even when playing potentially dislikable characters (e.g., Minority Report). Here, he’s given a cardboard cut-out character designed to entice: handsome, rugged, brilliant, and obsessed with the true story behind the disappearance of his father, an oil executive who maybe—just maybe—worked for the CIA. James could have been bland, but Farrell invests him with just enough energy and rouge egotism to keep him interesting.
Roughly half of the film takes place on “The Farm,” the ultra-secret CIA training grounds outside of Washington, DC. There, James, Lalya, and other fresh recruits learn how to be covert operatives, which involves not only learning how to shoot guns and move stealthily in dangerous situations, but more importantly how to lie, cheat, swindle, and con. As portrayed here, the most important aspect of being a CIA agent is your ability to create various facades behind which to hide. This is stressed over and over again in the training scenes and for good reason because the second half of the film finds James having to play a game of emotional hide-and-seek with Layla as he investigates whether or not she is actually a mole working for the other side.
But, always on the fringes is Pacino’s Walter Burke, the man who seems to pull James’ strings and is his only real connection to the larger institution for which he works. James’ missing father gives Burke an easy role to fill, and he does so, dispensing hardened paternal advice in the form of rat-a-tat agentspeak (“Nothing is what it seems”).
Director Roger Donaldson (Thirteen Days), though, recognizes that Farrell and Moynahan have chemistry—their slow-burn relationship is all the more interesting for how long it keeps getting put off, rather than the heat generated once they land in bed together. However, he rightly sees that it is the relationship between James and Burke, his surrogate father-figure, that is the more interesting and compelling. And, even though the story virtually collapses in its final minutes, relying far too heavily on the talking villain cliché to explain what happened when and where, The Recruit is nevertheless an intriguing and entertaining yarn, a little bit of Nixon-era government conspiracy trickery polished up for the new millennium.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick