(originally posted at re-view on March 2, 2003)
This re-view reveals the “shocking” twist ending to “The Recruit”! Don’t read if you’re totally oblivious! (Otherwise, read on.)
Avid viewers of ABC’s phenomenal series “Alias” will recognize a lot of elements in “The Recruit”. There’s the brilliant, fresh-out-of-college trainee agent, the scruffy mentor-father figure, and gadgets gadgets gadgets. Oh, and there’s a mole, or a double agent, or something. But you knew all that from seeing the trailer endlessly over the last two months, didn’t you?
On paper, “The Recruit” seems like a no-brainer, home run of a movie – hot, young star (Colin Farrell) paired with grizzled film veteran struggling to find a decent part (Al Pacino, in full “Scent of a Woman” mode) in a taut, suspense filled action thriller (written by Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer) with a “surprise” ending. Which is all well and good, except that the studio telegraphed the twist ending in the trailer, which has been running relentlessly since the beginning of the holiday season. The twist? Pretty obvious, when you considering the underlying theme of the film: “Nothing is as it seems.” Someone is working against the CIA as a mole. Is it James Clayton (Farrell, most recently seen in “Daredevil”), top MIT graduate, computer savant and smooth bartender? Is it Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan), fellow CIA recruit and seemingly perfect match for Clayton? Or is it Walter Burke (Pacino), the CIA’s “scary judge of talent”? Well, if you couldn’t figure it out from the preview, stop reading this right now, walk to the nearest wall and bang your head into it. Because between the preview and the first hour of the movie, the writers couldn’t make it more obvious.
Therein lies the major failing of “The Recruit”. The story presents a whole lot of potential. The ending of the story itself presents the opportunity for a major Hitchcockian twist. But placed in the hands of hacks like Towne (“The Natural” – that’s right, he hasn’t written a film since 1984!), Wimmer (“Equilibrium”) and Glazer (whose last original work was the 1991 Cindi Lauper vehicle “Off and Running”, but is probably better known for collaborating on “Scrooged”), this story plays out as obvious and bland. Even without seeing the trailer, you can see the huge twist at the end (Pacino is the mole, getting paid $3M for a dubious-sounding computer virus…you know, normally I would have posted a spoiler warning, but let’s face it…you already knew all this) coming for the final hour of the movie. Add a suspicion-fueled love story into the mix, and the fact that some folks at the CIA go out for “margarita Monday” after work, and you wonder how this thing ever got past the first draft. Or if it actually did. In all fairness, tho, the story was moved along at a fairly brisk pace, and, while predictable at times, the film was rarely “boring”.
Despite being a spy film, the production design didn’t go off into the realm of fantasy, as was the case with, say, “xXx”. If a computer is presented on screen, if pretty much does what you’d expect a computer to do. The CIA isn’t all giant video screens, red phones and ultra-super-secure biometrics – believe it or not, there are actually cube farms at the CIA! And a cafeteria that sells overpriced sandwiches! And the logins on the computers can be defeated with anyone who knows a decent amount about computer code! (Well, maybe the last part is a bit far-fetched.) But most things act they way they should in real life – Colin Farrell’s truck doesn’t fly, and Pacino’s cell phone isn’t also a fingerprint reader, and you actually need a wireless card to get a laptop to access the CIA’s server in the middle of nowhere. All this serves to make the spiffy spy gadgets more fantastic – and when you consider that the only thing we’re really shown is a microphone that biodegrades after 48 hours, it comes off as pretty nifty. (Until you find out that the CIA seemingly gives them out with the Company newsletter, because EVERYONE’s got them.)
Farrell and Moynahan are both likable, and deal well enough with the hammy material they’re handed. There’s a great moment where Pacino sends Farrell and 4 other male recruits on an “op” into a bar to secure an “asset” with the intention of having “sex”. In the process of delivering some pickup lines, he spys Moynahan on the other side of the bar – she’s drunk and depressed because she just got the boot from the trainee program. He calls a cab to take her back to her motel, and she gradually leads him outside to make out. “OP COMPLETE!” That’s Moynahan saying that – her “op” was to cock-block Farrell. The tables have just been turned on Farrell, and he doesn’t know how to react – or what, if any, of what she’s said about her feelings for him is true. (It’s a running theme thru the whole film.) I like Farrell more and more with each film appearance, and I have no doubt that he’ll be able to open a film on his own by the time “Phone Booth” finally makes it into theatres in April or so.
Then there’s Pacino. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Al Pacino. He was brilliant in the Godfather saga. But I’m wondering if the gaggle of writers were more than a little intimidated by his status as a movie “icon”. See, as the lead instructor at CIA’s training center (“The Farm” – a setting familiar to fans of the Tom Clancy books), Pacino’s character is frequently placed a position to lecture the trainees about the life of a spy. And Pacino growls out spy cliché after spy cliché – almost like the writers just let him ad-lib, because they couldn’t write for a guy like him. The only real difference between his performance here and the aforementioned “Scent of a Woman” was the lack of “HooWAH!” and…well…more interesting dialogue with his protégé. (In his closing monologue, after he essentially outs himself as the mole, I swear I think I saw him literally chew the scenery, Shatner style.)
Director Roger Donaldson may not be the most familiar name, but he previously directed vehicles for Tom Cruise and Natasha Henstridge (“Cocktail” and “Species”, respectively)…OK, toss in “Cadillac Man” and “Dante’s Peak”, and he hasn’t got the greatest track record. But he does a serviceable job here, and allows Collin Farrell to shine as the definite star of this film. Following the clue from the production design, the camerawork and points of view presented are often logical and rarely “fantastic”, a nice change from spy thrillers who have no qualms saying “we rented this infrared camera, damn it, we’re going to use it!” Not necessary memorable, but suited well to this film.
Overall, “The Recruit” isn’t a bad way to spend 2 hours. It doesn’t hold up to the Jack Ryan movies (and doesn’t even come CLOSE to dethroning “The Hunt for Red October” as the best spy thriller ever), but it does well to establish Colin Farrell as a leading man who can handle both action and romance, and tries to put a spin on the “double agent/mole” scenario. It’s just too bad JJ Abrams does it so much better on a weekly basis. That, a ham-fisted script, and the fact that Touchstone Pictures gave away the twist serve to sink the movie to simply “average” levels.