The Next Big Thing meets with the Last Big Thing in “The Recruit.” The former is Colin Farrell, Hollywood’s hottest wonder-boy and the latter is Al Pacino. At this point in his career, Pacino is allowed to do pretty much anything he wants, yet he rarely strays from his forte: yelling and looking tired. No one in his league comes close to combining red-veined bug eyes, a whitish three-day stubble and a mouth that always seems ready to dispense embittered bons mots — and still have sizzling charisma. In another 40 or so years, though, Farrell may be that kind of guy. He already has the stubble and those penetrating dark eyes. Start that boy on a steady diet of bourbon, cigars and tragic relationships.
“The Recruit” is about how a worn and weathered CIA agent handpicks a bright, young MIT graduate and grooms him for espionage. The opening 30 minutes are the film’s best: Walter Burke (Pacino) walks into a bar that James (Farrell) is tending and asks him point-blank to hook his future to the CIA. James is both intrigued (“Will I have to kill anyone?”) and contemptuous (“The CIA is full of boring, fat white guys who were sleeping when we needed them the most”), but when Burke hints that he knew James’ father, a Shell Oil exec who supposedly died in a plane crash years back, he decides to join so he can question Burke some more. The agent responds with one of the many CIA rejoinders apparently stashed in his crumpled overcoat: “I don’t have any answers — only secrets.”
Soon, James is down on “the Farm,” CIA lingo for the new recruits’ boot camp, which is run by Burke. First he drills everyone on the basics: “Nothing is what it seems. Trust no one,” which he most certainly copped from watching “The X-Files” — another agency, but so what. Then he gives them assignments, which range from tricky (seducing someone at a bar) to slippery (pretending to be another person) to standard procedure (bombing cars). The hip, suave James proves himself adept at all three, and Burke declares himself satisfied with his new protege: “I told you, I’m a scary judge of talent.”
But as soon as James has graduated from the Farm and is sent on a solitary mission to uncover a mole, “The Recruit” runs out of oil, switches to coal, and starts chug-chugging its way to an ending that’s not only predictable, but just plain silly.
Up to this point Burke had seemed mysterious, hiding who-knew-what strategies up his sleeves. In the second half, the facade splinters to reveal him as a fatigued and embittered has-been. There’s still a lot of charm in the creases of his face though, and we almost feel like falling for it, right along with James. If nothing is what it seems then Burke’s air of jadedness and dissipation could be a front, too, right? Which is what James keeps telling himself as he pegs bravely away at his mission, jeopardizing the safety of other recruits and his own sense of integrity.
Too bad that by this time, the story has done so many somersaults on the nontrust theme we’re past caring about who’s telling lies and who’s not. The film seems to suffer from a familiar cinema neurosis of overwriting (the three-man team of Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer) and overdirection (by veteran Roger Donaldson of “Dante’s Peak” and “Thirteen Days”) — giving the phrase “plot contrivance” a run for its money.
The trick to appreciating “The Recruit” is not to see it as an espionage thriller (a la “Spy Games,” another CIA film about an older agent teaching “The Way” to a hip young thing), but as a series of vignettes from acting school: Pacino coaching the younger generation on the finer points of one-on-one confrontations, love scenes, shootouts, how to die with style, etc. For what is the maxim “Nothing is what it seems” if not a summary of cinema itself, an assemblage of light, shadow, makeup and acting? No wonder espionage and movies have always had such a cozy relationship — they’re practically in the same business.
When it finally comes, the ending aims to be wrenching, but it’s not, and there’s little catharsis from seeing James walk away, bruised but intact, resolute in his decision to learn from Burke’s mistakes and successes. Perhaps this is a Hollywood initiation, a blessing given by one of the reigning greats to an emerging one. Sometimes in the young actor, you can almost see Pacino playing opposite Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” If this is acting school, Farrell has graduated with honors.