Thrillers that are "all surprises" can feel the same as thrillers that have no surprises. Unless the director knits an intricate tapestry of lies while maintaining a surface credibility - as director Roger Donaldson did 15 years ago in No Way Out and fails to do in The Recruit - the audience experiences the film at a far remove, busying itself with anticipating twists or poking holes in logic.
And unlike a TV series such as 24 or Alias, a standalone thriller like The Recruit doesn't have time or space to deepen identification with the characters while they board their death-defying narrative whirligigs. So even actors bursting with personality have a hard time filling in emotional blanks.
By contemporary standards, The Recruit is a halfway decent spy melodrama - at least to the halfway point. If it doesn't have a breakout performance equivalent to Robert Redford's in Spy Game, it does have a less show-offy camera technique than that headache-inducing movie.
Still, around an hour in, the implausibilities in The Recruit mount up, peaking with the revelation that a CIA agent hiding a sensitive secret code lacks any security system beyond a deadbolt lock. The end effect for the audience is disbelief. Too many agents must behave crudely and too many of the villains' bets have to pay off for the subplots to click into place.
Colin Farrell, best known to American audiences as the tenacious investigator in Minority Report, plays James Clayton, a genius at computer coding. Al Pacino plays Walter Burke, a CIA field man turned instructor who recruits Clayton straight out of MIT and puts him through his paces on the training base, "The Farm."
When Clayton was 12, his father died in a plane crash in Peru; ever since, Clayton has been obsessed with discovering more about what happened. Burke toys so openly with Clayton's need for a father figure that potentially mawkish scenes become darkly comic. Here is this kid with everything going for him jumping at the snap of a worn-out legend's gnarly fingers.
Farrell has the right touch of feral desperation for Clayton, and Pacino pitches Burke somewhere between the vivid understatement of Lowell Bergman in The Insider and the wild overstatement of Lt. Col. Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman. Farrell and Pacino have an effective visual chemistry: Clayton's eyes pop as much as Burke's sink in.
But the script, which boasts three screenwriters (Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer) has an odd asymmetry that prevents them from anchoring the action with a dynamic bond. The movie is divided between a procedural adventure about the recruiting and training of spy candidates and a spy-vs.-spy caper about rooting out a mole ensconced in CIA headquarters. Most of the time, Pacino is nothing more than a puppetmaster and Farrell his puppet. There was more of an equal connection, and tension, between Redford and Brad Pitt in Spy Game.
Some lines have a sophisticated snap. Asked whether he's "subjectively firm" or "objectively flexible" - maybe it was the other way around - Clayton replies that he's "metaphysically wrinkle-free." And a viewer can see how the writers wanted everything to fit together, including Clayton's on-and-off romance with another trainee, Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan). But the finished film leaves every one of its bloodied bodies hanging.
By the end, you realize why Donaldson adopts a claustrophobic style, full of close-ups and backgrounds flattened out with long lenses. Let any fresh air into the frame and the whole stale mass would collapse.
Starring Al Pacino and Colin Farrell
Directed by Roger Donaldson
Released by Touchstone/Disney
Time 115 minutes
SUN SCORE * * 1/2