Twisty, pulpy and thoroughly implausible, “The Recruit” is like one of John le Carre’s George Smiley stories recast for the Jerry Bruckheimer generation. Roger Donaldson’s CIA thriller is slickly made but doesn’t come close to matching even his 1987 tale of Pentagon duplicity, “No Way Out.” That picture, while hardly perfect, was much more strongly plotted (based as it was on Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel “The Big Clock” and John Farrow’s 1948 film of it)–or, if you prefer, less grotesquely overplotted than this rather sorry original from a trio of screenwriters. Here, the shell-game intrigue goes on for so long, and to such preposterous lengths, that eventually the viewer is not only exhausted by all the moves and counter-moves but bored by the utter inconsequentiality of it all.
For its first half, though, “The Recruit” at least holds one’s attention, even as it strains credulity. The impossibly handsome, perpetually smoldering Colin Farrell plays James Clayton, a brilliant but rebellious MIT grad, obsessed about finding out the truth of his father’s death more than a decade earlier, who’s recruited for the Company by colorful agent Walter Burke (Al Pacino, in enigmatically brooding mode until the close, when he bursts into a “Dog Day Afternoon”-style harangue). While undergoing rigorous physical and psychological training at the firm’s rustic facility, Clayton falls for a curvaceous classmate named Layla (Bridget Moynahan)–an emotional connection that proves troublesome to his success in the program. Thus far, the picture works moderately well, mostly thanks to the interplay between Farrell and Pacino and the “is it real or is it Memorex?” nature of the tests to which the cadets are put. When Burke assigns Clayton to uncover a suspected mole within the agency after the lad purportedly fails the training, however, things pretty much fall apart. From that point on, “The Recruit” degenerates into a laborious, confusing succession of chases, narrow escapes, betrayals and double crosses, with the credibility quotient slipping alarmingly before a big last-minute twist ends the labyrinthine narrative on a distinctly downbeat, yet curiously conventional, note.
Things might have turned out more happily, for the audience at least, if there were greater chemistry between Farrell and Moynahan. As it is, they prove leagues short of the Grant-Bergman pairing in Hitchcock’s luminous spy-romance “Notorious”–in fact, Redford and Pitt made a better couple in “Spy Game.” It’s always difficult when the guy is prettier than the girl in any event, but in this instance Moynahan also proves so dramatically wan and colorless beside Farrell’s boyish intensity that they come off badly mismatched. Apart from Pacino, who mostly seems to be slogging through the paces here, the rest of the cast is utterly nondescript. Donaldson’s direction doesn’t pump much energy into the proceedings, either; even the foot races and vehicular crashes that make up a good deal of the second half have a dutiful rather than imaginative air. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh photographs the piece in a flashy style emphasizing dark greys, blues and greens, presumably to add a tone of doom and gloom; but in many cases the result is simple, monotonous murkiness, and Klaus Badelt’s propulsive score fails to juice the action up much.
The mantra that Pacino’s Burke repeats to his star pupil throughout “The Recruit” is that “Nothing is what it seems.” Unfortunately, by the time Donaldson’s picture has made its circuitous way to an over-the-top denouement, it’s become exactly what it seems–a gaudy, contrived bit of cinematic legerdemain thick with style and atmosphere but distinctly short on logic and sense. One of Pacino’s final lines in it is “Don’t you appreciate the complexity of this thing?” To which a viewer might justifiably reply, “Not really.”