I really hate reviewing this particular type of movie — it’s the sort of thing that’s impossible to get worked up over either way. It’s not good enough to like, but it’s not bad enough to dislike either. It’s simply an adequate two hours of mildly entertaining professionalism that scales the heights of so-soism.
Apparently, Al Pacino — or his agent — decided that edgy projects like Insomnia and S1mOne were not really the way to go, so it would be better to take a jaunt down DeNiro Road into Indifferent-land. With this in mind, The Recruit is to Pacino’s resume what City by the Sea was to DeNiro’s — that most unrewarding of concepts: tailoring a project to that which an actor does “so well.” Good Lord, even the late George Arliss (who quit making movies in 1938) routinely turned down scripts written with this in mind by well-meaning colleagues. Not so with Pacino, it seems.
What we have here is a variant on the Scent of a Woman formula: Put Pacino in a movie where he can play mentor to a younger star. Then give him a variety of clever ripostes that he handles “so well.” And, for the capper, let’s cut him loose on a Big Speech (hoo-hah! indeed). Those responsible for rehashing this notion are apparently of the opinion that affording the story a “surprise” ending makes it significantly different. That’s not necessarily a bad idea, though it can only work if 1.) the surprise is really surprising and 2.) you don’t spend the entire movie reminding the viewer that “nothing is what it seems.” In the end, the results do not just approximate what you expect; they are exactly what you expect.
Pacino plays world-weary CIA agent Walter Burke, who — in a somewhat peculiar scene — “picks up” young computer whiz James Clayton (Colin Farrell) in a bar with an eye toward recruiting Clayton into the Agency. (Yes, Noel Coward did the same thing with Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana and Pierce Brosnan did it more recently with Geoffrey Rush in The Tailor of Panama. The difference is that those were satires; this is done with an alarmingly straight face.) The whole thing is peppered with clever Pacino-esque bits. “Do I have to kill anybody?” asks Clayton. “Would you like to?” asks Burke with devilish delight. Milking the young man’s curiosity about his missing father’s own involvement with the agency (a plot point so buried that it’s easy to forget it’s there), Burke coerces Clayton into CIA training — and then appears to set things up so Clayton washes out. Ah, but that’s all a part of the plot, if you haven’t already guessed.
In the long run, Clayton becomes romantically involved with another trainee, Layla (Bridget Moynahan, The Sum of All Fears) and washes out of the training — and then the supposed real plot kicks in. The film then follows the dictates of its new story line with all the tenacity of a terrier with a rat in its teeth. It’s impossible to fault the movie’s professionalism. It’s impossible to fault the performances. It’s impossible to fault the dialogue. It’s also, unfortunately, impossible to much care what happens.
Viewers of a liberal bent — or even those of who are just particularly cynical — are apt to squirm at the script’s insistence at being a kind of apologist for the CIA. One tends to suspect that the filmmakers are themselves not wholly comfortable with this, especially when the camera lingers on a sign for the “George Bush Center for Intelligence”! But this seems part of the movie’s own inherent cynicism (The Recruit is nothing if not a product of its time). All in all, though, the film is just a spy thriller that has about as much of a political agenda as an episode of Friends — and maybe less so.
Pacino is good at doing what he does “so well.” Farrell is an appropriate young hero. And so on. If you’re a fan of either actor, you’ll want to see The Recruit. If you just want to see a well-made movie that works better the less you think about it, then this one definitely fills that bill as well. On any other level…well, there are a number of much better choices out there.