"Nothing is what it seems." And while that line from "The Recruit" is intended to tantalize, all it does is telegraph. What could (or should) have been a thriller turns out to be merely an exercise--both literally and figuratively. It's a cat-and-mouse movie with one felonious-minded feline and a group of clueless mice.
"The Recruit" takes us to a top-secret facility somewhere in Virginia (well, Ontario, if you're a scenic stickler), where would-be CIA agents are trained. It's a boot camp, basically, with chief spook and sadist-in-residence Walter Burke (Al Pacino) acting as drill instructor for a group of wet-behind-the-ears young'uns whom he soon pits against each other. Although we very quickly learn that everything is a test--everything is an exercise--it takes these recruits much longer to figure that out, which means, what? That the average viewer is more qualified to be a CIA agent than any of these people?
Well, thanks but no thanks. These guys play rough. Training like this makes you wonder who's the enemy . . . which, of course, is partly the point. It all begins innocently enough, with a "John, John, we're missing graduation!" moment as friends of James Clayton (Colin Farrell) phone to tell him he's late for their MIT presentation to Dell Computers at a job fair. They've come up with a program that can take over any host server, these überhackers, and the Dell people are thrilled. But there's a skulker who's also watching Clayton, and this guy Burke tries to convince him he's really CIA material. It's not a hard sell. Recruiting Clayton is as easy as trying to sell a Bowie knife to Rambo, because we understand rather early that he really wants to find out more about his father's death/disappearance, with all the signs pointing to CIA involvement. What better way to find out more about Dad than by signing up?
Not enough happens with that thread, really, until it's picked up much later. The main subplot involves a romantic tension between Clayton and fellow trainee Layla (Bridget Moynahan) and a competition between Clayton and a friend of hers who's a former Miami cop (Gabriel Macht) . . . but may be something more. Maybe some viewers will find this thrilling, but I kept thinking Samuel Morse the whole way, things were so obvious. Once you get past the first two acts, an entertaining enough account of their training travails, things bog down when they really should be pushing our brains to their outer limits and challenging us to figure it all out. Instead, it's not that much of a cipher. There's a mild twist at the end, but for the most part you can see everything coming as if you were atop the Empire State Building on a clear day, binoculars optional.
There's humor here too, from the intentional ("The CIA logo gets you laid. Republican girls? Hot!") to the unintentional, as when we see cars drive up to the George Bush Center for Intelligence and wonder, briefly, if that's an oxymoron.
As for the performances, you've got to hand it to Pacino and Farrell. They really seem to relish their roles, and that's the mark of not just a professional, but a person who loves his job. The rest of the cast is okay, but these two really go at it, as if it were an alpha male battle with a whole herd of females at stake. The thing is, nobody or nothing else rises to their level. Not the cinematography, not the set or sound design, and certainly not the script. As Farrell remarks in the commentary, it's a good screenplay, but not a brilliant one. Which leaves us with the action. For the first two thirds, it's all pretty basic . . . as in training. Put a bomb under a car, press the button on a remote, and watch it explode. There's a wrinkle (which I won't spoil), but it also doesn't pan out to be as exciting as the situation might have generated. And yet, like "Top Gun" or hell, even "Stripes," there's something about spending time with a bunch of recruits and watching them struggle to make it. Viewers vicariously put themselves in their place, wondering if they could do it. And the time that this film spends on training exercises and intrigues is at least time well spent. It's what happens in the third act that pushes "The Recruit" into the realm of "okayness." And believe me, the way this thing started out, it deserved a better fate.
The 1080p video (VC-1 codec) looks decent enough, with natural-looking colors and an absence of artifacts that should please most videophiles. But the look of this picture changes from sequence to sequence, with some so sharply detailed that it really makes you remember you're watching a Hi-Def video, and others a little "soft" or even washed-out looking. If you're inclined to base your Hi-Def judgments on skin tones, no one here looks like George Hamilton Jr. after another session in a tanning bed. Everything (or rather, everyone) looks extremely natural. "The Recruit" is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio of its theatrical presentation.
Okay, anyone who's ever read my Blu-ray reviews knows that I'm a fan of PCM, and the 5.1 PCM audio (48kHz/24-bit) doesn't disappoint. There's a brightness to the sound that's exceptionally pleasing, and the effects speakers are called into play on more than the few occasions when action erupts. Even the treble seems fully-formed and rich in timbre. Though the sound doesn't float in the room the way it does with showpiece soundtracks, it's still a solid audio. Additional soundtracks are an English 5.1 Dolby Digital and a Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
The full-length commentary by director Roger Donaldson and Farrell is interesting, to say the least. I'm so accustomed to hearing people hype their movies that it's refreshing to hear Farrell talk about how it's a good but not brilliant script. He also says that he tries to do whatever he can to elevate a film, but you get the feeling that he's not so sure he was able to do that this time. Donaldson and Farrell are as candid as can be, and that makes for an interesting listen the second time around--which, by the way, they make clear is a painful experience for both of them.
Also included are four deleted scenes playable with or without commentary from Donaldson and Farrell, though they're so short and uninteresting you get the feeling that they really didn't need much of a commentary. A "Spy School: Inside the CIA Training Program" showcases technical advisor Chase Brandon, a 25-year veteran of the CIA who tells us there really is a CIA training facility like The Farm. In fact, there are a bunch of them. But apart from that revelation it's a pretty standard short-short feature. The only other bonus features are three promotional trailers, if you can call them that.
"The Recruit" is one of those films that starts out with promise that isn't fulfilled. Action fans will want more action, thriller fans will want more thrills, and drama fans will want more twists and turns. The bright spots are Pacino and Farrell, who make us forget that they're Pacino and Farrell, at least for the span of 115 good but not great minutes.