Spy movies generally fall into two categories: Intellectual thrillers or gadgets-and-stunts actioners. There's no point in expecting much more than amusement-park entertainment from the latter. But in a picture as ostensibly cunning as "The Recruit" -- about a rookie CIA spook hunting down a mole within the Agency -- the very least the filmmakers could do is not give away their supposed surprises with billboard-sized clues in every other scene.
From almost his first line of dialogue, secret agent headhunter Al Pacino drums home two points -- "nothing is what it seems" and "everything is a test" -- with such deliberateness that long before any real intrigue begins, the film's litany of elementary plot twists is stretched out on the screen like a road map.
Since Pacino's purportedly promising young apprentice, a pretty-boy MIT programming genius played by Colin Farrell ("Minority Report"), can't seem to read these signs, he spends most of the movie three steps behind any astute moviegoer. So it's more than a little hard to believe it when he's plucked from spy school to go undercover at CIA headquarters, working to weed out a double agent while pretending to be a washout trainee who settled for a data-entry job.
About 30 minutes of the film takes place at "The Farm" -- the nickname of the agency's training facility -- where there are tension and surprises to be had as Farrell and his fellow recruits are put to the test, mentally, psychologically and physically. But even the most extreme, unexpected scenarios lack the kind of impact they might have had if Pacino hadn't spilled the beans with his mantras of mistrust.
After one not-so-twisty twist, in which Farrell (and the other students) is led to believe he flunked out of the program after a grueling ordeal, Pacino turns up with a secret assignment for him. His mark is Bridget Moynahan, a brainy, beautiful classmate he fell for during their training. It seems that in her new position at the CIA she's sneaking a dangerous prototype computer super-virus out of the agency in small bits of code, and nobody knows how she's doing it.
Farrell is conflicted about bringing her down, and you can't blame the guy since there's some pretty sexy heat between them. But director Roger Donaldson ("Thirteen Days") does a poor job of selling the picture's spy-versus-spy stuff. Farrell actually seems to think that Moynahan (who did graduate spy school) won't be aware of him accessing her computer while she's sleeping. How dumb does he think she is? He pretends to be delivering mail in her department at CIA headquarters, then disappears into her empty and curiously unlocked office for five minutes, hacking into her secure computer terminal without anyone taking notice.
He bugs her with a listening device, but only checks himself or his car for such equipment when it says so in the script. He calls attention to himself when following her in public by conspicuously ducking behind cars and peeking around corners. And all the while this clumsy espionage has "red herring" written all over it, yet Farrell takes a mighty long time to catch on.
"The Recruit" has its moments of character veracity, thanks to decent performances from its stars. Pacino quietly delights in his moral ambiguity while chomping cigars and a little bit of scenery. Farrell has a vulnerability mixed into his dogged determination that boosts his appeal. Moynahan ("The Sum of All Fears"), however, makes the most credible spy because she doesn't act like one all the time.
But such plausibility does not extend to the overly flashy filmmaking, the story's lack of depth and the largely predictable plot. As my frustration grew with "The Recruit," I couldn't help but dwell on thoughts of two recent secret-agent thrillers that run rings around this one in both intelligence and action.
2002's "The Bourne Identity" (starring Matt Damon as an assassin with amnesia, and just out on DVD and video) is a great seat-gripper and an even better mind-bender that values the thought process in a way this film only pretends to. And 2001's "Spy Game," features a similar relationship between a CIA recruit (Brad Pitt) and his mentor (Robert Redford), but sets it against a profoundly perilous real-world stage with political and emotional stakes far less contrived, and training far more authentic and practical.
Both those pictures play well on the small screen and stand up to multiple viewings in a way this film most certainly will not. If ads for "The Recruit" have you jonesing for the spy-flick fix, stay home and treat yourself to a far superior double feature of genre fare instead.