"The Recruit," with Al Pacino as a cynical but savvy CIA instructor and Colin Farrell as his new prize pupil, is pretty entertaining at first, then jumps off the rails. Starting as one of those glossy, expert thrillers whose cliches can be excused because the filmmakers catch you up so cleverly in neat plot twists and sexy star turns, it suddenly morphs into one more overly slick, empty show.
It's still pretty entertaining, at least for the first half. The actors manage to keep our interest, and so, in a way, does director Roger Donaldson ("No Way Out," "13 Days"), right at home in this sleek, nervous Washington, D.C., milieu. Pacino plays wolfish, weary-eyed Water Burke, endlessly hectoring Farrell's James Clayton and his CIA classmates. When Pacino is off screen "The Recruit" suffers. We need Pacino's hip, skeptical cool, especially when the plot starts disintegrating. Farrell, the magnetic young lead of "Tigerland" and the FBI agent of "Minority Report," may get the big star treatment here - "Recruit" is obviously intended to make a Tom Cruise out of him - but without Pacino, this movie would have no soul at all.
The central gimmick is straight out of two better pictures, "Spy Game" and "Training Day." Like them, "The Recruit" is about mentoring gone wrong. Farrell's James is a scruffy young computer whiz whose father mysteriously died in Peru, and when Pacino's Burke recruits him, he hints that the elder Clayton may have been a spook, too. Burke dangles the prize of redemption and, hooked, James enters spy school and meets among his other classmates his instant crush, Layla (Bridget Moynahan), and her hunky friend Zack (Gabriel Macht). The movie projects the notion, sort of pleasurable at first, that the CIA school is a sexual playground full of hunks and supermodels. New surprises and possible conspiracies keep coming at Clayton. Some of them are agency tests to determine his suitability for deep cover jobs; others aren't.
A story like this rises or falls because of characters and plot twists, and at first, "The Recruit" seems to have them. Pacino slants his performance to keep us off-balance throughout. On the one hand, Burke teases national pride by saying of the CIA recruits, "We believe in right and wrong, and we choose right." On the other hand, he feeds the old anti-CIA paranoia by repeatedly croaking, "Things are not what they seem!" and "Trust no one!" That, apparently, is the mantra of Burke's CIA, and the distrust also infiltrates Clayton's romance with Layla, who may be involved in Burke's games, or even a counterspy.
There's no reason this movie shouldn't have worked at least as well as "Spy Game" or "The Bourne Identity." But while "The Recruit" is fast and slick enough to carry us along during its setup scenes, the screenplay isn't witty or tricky enough to sustain the payoff. Scripted by three writers who didn't work with each other (always a bad sign), it has a surprise ending that isn't much of a surprise and a set of twists that make no sense if you go over them afterwards.
It is impossible to specify exactly what messes up the last half of "The Recruit" without giving away movie secrets, if not state ones. But among other things, the writers ask us to accept that CIA agents trade important secrets on cell phone lines and leave their computers open for casual rifling, and the whole final scene depends on one character's apparent amnesia about where an assault team's rifles are actually pointing. But "The Recruit" also has Pacino and Farrell. Farrell has a charm and boyish pensiveness that make him genuine smart action-hero material, even if he needs a good script to shine. Pacino doesn't.
I love watching Pacino these days. In his 30s, he seemed one of the subtlest of the great 1970s generation of offbeat American male stars that included Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. Back then, Pacino specialized in quiet, introverted types (like Michael Corleone) or deceptive role players (like Serpico). But, in his 60s, Pacino sometimes seems to have become what John Barrymore was in his 50s: a great hammy movie actor who mixes formidable technique with a wacky, off-kilter personality. He has great comic style and killer delivery (both of which helped get him his 1992 Oscar for "Scent of a Woman"), and they're on display here.
Unfortunately, Pacino these days doesn't often have material as good as Barrymore had in the 1930s, when he was playing roguish drunks and suave con men in "Twentieth Century" and "Dinner at 8." Instead, Pacino has stuff like "The Recruit," put together by writers who write as if they couldn't wait to cash their checks and get on with their lives. Yet the old pro Pacino wins the day anyway, mostly because he plays both with and against his lines, at times racing wryly through them or spitting them out as if they were disagreeable bits of food. This sly irreverence makes most of his scenes bounce, until he and everyone else get mired in the movie's senseless climax.
Too bad. The whole problem with "The Recruit," ultimately, is that everything is what it seems.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Roger Donaldson; written by Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer, Mitch Glazer; photographed by Stuart Dryburgh; edited by David Rosenbloom; production designed by Andrew McAlpine; music by Klaus Badelt; produced by Roger Birnbaum, Jeff Apple, Gary Barber. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Friday, Jan. 31. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (Violence, sexuality and language).
Walter Burke - Al Pacino
James Clayton - Colin Farrell
Layla - Bridget Moynahan
Zack - Gabriel Macht
Ronnie - Mike Realba Dennis Slayne - Karl Pruner
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.