"Nothing is what it seems."
Just a year before this film opened, we found Al Pacino co-starring with Robin Williams in the taut mystery "Insomnia." It was a good, complementary pairing of characters we enjoyed learning more about. In 2003's "The Recruit" Pacino is paired with Colin Farrell, another fine actor, but the outcome is quite different. Neither of the characters they play involves us enough to care much about them; consequently, we don't care much about the film, either.
"The Recruit" relies entirely on its convoluted plot to carry the day, and it's not up to the task. Director Roger Donaldson did better when he had a script like "Thirteen Days" to deal with because the events in that film were real and made sense. The script for "The Recruit" feels like a trip through an amusement-park fun house it's so unreal, and not even a talented director can make sense of it.
Resembling Tony Scott's "Spy Game," the 2001 thriller about the older spy tutoring the younger one, "The Recruit" puts CIA agent Pacino into the role of a father figure to young Farrell, whom he persuades to join the organization. From there on, however, the resemblance ends, as the new film forges ahead with a maze of complicated contrivances that make "Spy Game" seem positively matter-of-fact. Add, too, that the leads in "The Recruit" never develop any strong bond and their characters never grow as a result of their circumstances, and you get a fairly routine, if sometimes surprising, motion picture.
Pacino maintains his usual on-screen tough-guy persona as Walter Burke, senior CIA instructor extraordinaire, forever growling out bits of wisdom, barking orders, and looking confident and full of himself. However, since Burke's demeanor never changes through the story, it's up to Farrell's character, James Clayton, to carry the film; but, unfortunately, although he's in virtually every scene, Farrell is not given enough to do to carry anything. Burke is the newcomer, a dynamite computer programmer and part-time bartender, who seems equally as confident as Burke but is infinitely more sensitive. Why if he's such a hotshot programmer he's tending bar, I never did figure out. In any case, Burke wants Clayton to join the team and lures him into trying out with vague promises of revealing the circumstances of Burke's father's mysterious disappearance a dozen years before, possibly as a CIA operative.
The first half of the film recounts Clayton's schooling at the CIA training facility known as "the farm." It is here that Burke tells him for the second time, "Nothing is what it seems." By now it should be clear to the viewer that nothing in the film is to be taken at face value, and we are subsequently exposed to a series of sneaky maneuvers that make our head spin. Burke is there to teach the new recruits "to deceive, role play, psychologically assess, sell, exploit...and kill." The viewer should never forget it.
The Company motto: "Our failures are known; our successes are not." One of the recruits is to be chosen for the golden opportunity of becoming a NOC, a nonofficial cover operative, a true spy, alone and unprotected, the job they all aspire to, heaven knows why. Everything the recruits do, they're told, is a test, and ultimately, everything they do begins to test the patience of the movie audience. It's also at the training facility that Burke falls for a fellow recruit, the beauteous Layla Moore, played by the beauteous Bridget Moynahan. Will one of them attain the elusive goal of becoming a NOC, and if so, how will it affect their relationship?
After the training portion of the film is over, a spy-vs-spy operation consumes the second half. In both sections, tricks and gimmicks abound. Before long, we don't know what's real and what isn't, what's a test and what's not. Halfway through, no one knows what to believe or whom to trust. The only question is how many times will the viewer be taken in.
The movie becomes one long variation on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," wherein we quickly come to mistrust everyone, including the filmmakers. We're strung along guessing so much of the time about whether what we're seeing is true or fake that we find ourselves no longer interested in the actual plot. Indeed, we're not even sure what is the actual plot. By the time the final story shifts have occurred, we're so numb, we no longer care. While bits and pieces of the movie are engrossing in themselves, the affair as a whole is so dependent on plot contrivances and so altogether preposterous, it seems an unfortunate waste of Pacino's and Farrell's acting talents.
Trivia note: Everyone in the film uses an Opera 5 browser. Is this because programmers everywhere along with the CIA have adopted it for its speed, or because the Opera folks paid the filmmakers a bundle for such prominent product placement? When this kind of question become the dominant part of one's film-watching experience, you know the story and its characters have been left behind.
The THX-mastered transfer looks pretty good. The anamorphic widescreen presentation measures about 1.75:1 across a normal TV, quite a bit shy of its 2.35:1 theatrical size but better, I suppose, to accommodate the dimensions of a 16x9 (1.77:1) widescreen TV. The image is reasonably sharp, well balanced in color, not too bright or glossy, and dark in tone to complement the subject matter of the movie. There is a minimum of grain, but darker areas of the screen are a touch murky and reveal less detail than might be ideally desirable. Since much of the film takes place at night, it rather spoils some of the fun.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction is typical of a modern film. The audio has good range and a wide, left-to-right spread across the front speakers. The surrounds are used mainly to enhance musical ambiance, with the occasional aural effect of cars or tires in the rear. Dialogue is clear and clean, but, of course, it's firmly anchored in the center channel no matter where the person talking is located on screen.
The bonus items are the usual ones you'd expect to accompany a new movie on DVD. There's the requisite audio commentary, this one with director Roger Donaldson and star Colin Farrell. There's a sixteen-minute featurette, "Spy School: Inside the CIA Training Program," that compares some of the preparation CIA agents go through in the film to the preparation agents receive in the real world. There are four deleted scenes that may be played with or without commentary by Donaldson and Farrell. Interestingly, they are presented in something closer to the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio than the feature film is. Lastly, we have eighteen scene selections and a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests. English and French are the spoken language options, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired. No trailers for this film or anything else, and the usual booklet insert has been replaced by an advertisment.
"The Recruit" moves along at a healthy clip, and Pacino and Farrell are solid in their roles. Yet the movie never grips one the way it should. The characters are static, they never develop into anything more than they appear on the surface, so it's the film's plot a viewer must rely on for any sort of entertainment. But because the plot is so full of twists and turns, it soon becomes tiresomely and predictably unpredictable.
The movie is good for a single run through, but it's not really as much fun as I thought it might be. Once finished, I had no desire to watch it again, ever.