[Screen It]

(2003) (Al Pacino, Colin Farrell) (PG-13)

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Drama/Thriller: A new CIA recruit must figure out what's real and who to trust when assigned to find a mole within the organization.
Walter Burke (AL PACINO) is a CIA recruiter who's always on the lookout for potential future agents. His latest mark is James Clayton (COLIN FARRELL), a computer whiz who fits the CIA profile. While initially reluctant, James soon joins other recruits including Layla Moore (BRIDGET MOYNAHAN), Zach (GABRIEL MACHT) and Ronnie (MIKE REALBA) in going through training at Langley's "the farm."

There, they learn the fundamentals of espionage and experience various simulations of what their actual work may be like. After James is let go for breaking under some brutal interrogation, Burke informs him that he's actually been chosen as their top Ops Officer. His assignment is to find a possible mole that may be working inside the company trying to gain access to a top secret and potentially damaging software program.

The catch is that Burke believes Layla's the mole. From that point on, James must put aside his romantic feelings for her and go undercover as a double agent within the organization to discover whether she or someone else is working against their efforts.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
The fun thing about movies is that they can teach or at least inform viewers about people, places and things that they might not otherwise ever know about or get the chance to experience. After all, while I might not want to spend many years or tens of thousands of dollars going to medical school, I wouldn't mind a film that condenses or summarizes the experience in some sort of cinematic way, all for the price of one movie ticket or video rental.

Of course, the problem with such portrayals is that they might not be accurate either with the details or in the overall representation of the subject matter. Such is the question with "The Recruit," a dramatic thriller that's okay for a while but then progressively unravels as it heads toward its unfortunate conclusion.

Yet another student/mentor type drama, this one focuses on the recruitment and training of potential CIA agents with Al Pacino ("Simone," "Insomnia") and Colin Farrell ("Minority Report," "Hart's War") playing the leads in that arrangement that borders on a symbolic father/son relationship.

I have no idea if any of what's on display here is accurate, but director Roger Donaldson ("Thirteen Days," "Dante's Peak") - who works from a script by Roger Towne ("The Natural"), Kurt Wimmer ("Equilibrium" "The Thomas Crown Affair") and Mitch Glazer ("Great Expectations," "Scrooged") - certainly gives such training the usual, shiny Hollywood veneer. He also spends a great deal of time covering the activities on "the farm" - the name for Langley's facility - but the lengthy focus on the training is purposeful.

Beyond establishing plot and character attributes, it's clear that Donaldson's goal is to make the viewer feel like one of the trainees. You see, part of their training involves learning to figure out what to believe and who to trust.

Accordingly, the various recruits progressively encounter a number of situations that increase in their level of potential realism. They then have to discern whether what they're encountering is real or just another training exercise. As the viewer, we're thrust into a similar quandary, as we have to figure out the same thing in regards to what the characters are experiencing.

Along the way, one is apt to guess about whether the filmmakers are offering just another tease or if they're finally getting around to the main gist of the plot. While that might sound fun, engaging and entertaining to experience, the way in which the filmmakers have staged and then executed said material leaves something to be desired.

Although various clues and red herrings are present, there aren't enough of them. In addition, those that are present aren't plentiful or creative enough to make this the engrossing mind game that it wants to be. Despite the occasional zig or zag, the developments aren't terribly difficult to decipher or predict. The result is that the viewer is often ahead of the game, a point that isn't good for this sort of revelation-based story.

A film like this also needs a great deal of double, triple and even quadruple crossing and confusion to be effective. Yet, it never really utilizes enough of that type of material to create the sort of experience for which it's obviously aiming.

It also doesn't help that the filmmakers recycle tired and contrived plot elements and conventions, particularly when the drama eventually segues into a thriller. Whether it's the talkative villain who must explain their actions or the initially cold female character who eventually warms up to the male protagonist, we've seen far too much of what this film has to offer many times before.

Despite the mentor/student and gray government portrayal similarities to 2001's "Spy Game," this film thankfully doesn't exactly mimic its plot. Yet, the dubious characters and various surprises here simply don't possess as much allure or power as they should. You can see what the film is trying to do and be, but it comes up short more often than not.

The biggest disappointment, though, is with the finale that similarly falters on those accounts and simply reverts to the standard hero and villain showdown seen in countless other movies. Not only is that mostly incongruous with what had been offered up to that point, but it wastes what could have been another fun twist to conclude matters.

The one thing the film has going for it is a strong cast. Notwithstanding all of the forced and/or ludicrous third act developments and actions, Pacino, Farrell and Bridget Moynahan ("The Sum of All Fears," "Serendipity") - looking quite a bit like Ashley Judd - are decent, although they're stymied by the script that never kicks into overdrive like it should. Pacino could play this sort of part in his sleep, but delivers his standard reliable performance. Farrell again holds his own against a bigger star and is fun to watch.

Several other characters are present, but this is essentially just a three-person show where motivations, allegiances and credibility are purposefully but not altogether successfully designed to be nebulous at best. For a while and at times that works. Yet, it's not consistent enough to make this the smart and engaging dramatic thriller that it's posing as. "The Recruit" rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 28, 2003 / Posted January 31, 2003

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