Despite the unparalleled success of the James Bond series, spying and the movies don't really go hand in hand. Real spies don't look like Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. Neither do they look like Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor and Spy Game. They look like John Le Carré's George Smiley, someone you don't notice, like a sallow and rumpled Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In short, they don't look like Al Pacino and Colin Farrell in the current thriller The Recruit. And that's only one of the things wrong with this picture.
Written by Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer and directed by Roger Donaldson, The Recruit is a story of the contemporary CIA almost shockingly devoid of any relevance. Pacino's Walter Burke is an aging intelligence veteran now employed as a training instructor. He teaches people the requisite spook skills. Surveillance: don't let the person you're following notice you. Demolition: first, you light the Molotov cocktail; then, you throw it at the thing you want to blow up. Marksmanship: aiming at the heart is good. He also explains why people become spies, not for the money or the glory but because "We believe in good and evil; we believe in right and wrong." Any hopes that a lot of gray might crowd into such a black-and-white world are thoroughly dashed.
For his current class of would-be operatives, Burke recruits James Clayton (Farrell), a Bond if we didn't already have one. Clayton graduated first in his class at MIT. He's already formed his own software company and sold an amazingly invasive program to Dell. To boot, he's a crack shot, a fitness buff and handsome enough to be a male model. How this guy could ever follow anybody without being noticed is another question.
Alas, Clayton has two flaws, and thereby hang the psychological threads of a plot. First, Clayton grew up largely dad-less and now has a profound father need. Clayton's dad moved around all over the world and died under mysterious circumstances. Was he a spy, too? Does the pope have a tall hat? Can Burke be the dad Clayton's always wanted? Or will Burke manipulate Clayton's yearning for paternal mentoring in some way? Second, when Clayton's been in spook school for about a spook second, he falls in spook love with fellow spook Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan). Love is a weakness for a spy. Will Clayton's love for Layla cause some moment in his spook future when he will have to choose between spook mission and spook romance? Does George W. Bush hate Saddam Hussein?
Yes, I can wax plenty flip about this movie. It has few so ambitions that it pushes my scorn buttons pretty thoroughly. The picture tips way too much of its narrative hand when Burke provides his neophytes three items of advice: "Trust no one. Nothing is what it seems. And don't get caught." But I will concede that I was less bored in this picture than I often am in movies of this type. Part of that is because Pacino is always fun to watch. I trusted him to pick a better project, but I can't fault him for failing to give his all. In addition, though Burke's items of counsel raise our antennae to plot reversals, we don't know what form they are going to take. I did guess the ultimate resolution a ways before the end, but not nearly as early as I sadly often do. And there's a final icing of twist that I didn't see coming at all.
Still, The Recruit remains fundamentally predictable and in other ways under-imagined. Perhaps most dissatisfying, though, is the film's utter lack of interest in its own subject matter. Why do a movie about the business of spying when that's a business in which you are not really interested? In nearly four decades no film has approached The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in examining the psychological, emotional and even physical toll that real espionage takes upon the people who practice it. James Bond notwithstanding, as a culture, we came into the new century with largely negative images of the intelligence community. We know that the CIA failed miserably with the Bay of Pigs fiasco and spent a lot of the Cold War cooking up ridiculous ideas like sending explosive cigars to Castro. We know former CIA hands were involved in Watergate. Oliver Stone even speculates about CIA involvement in the Kennedy assassinations. Films like Three Days of the Condor wondered openly about the unfettered extent of CIA power. The recent Spy Game chastised the spy agency's cold-heartedness toward its own operatives. But in a post-9/11 world, we've seen the pitfalls of insufficient and faulty intelligence. Spying may be regrettable, but it may also be necessary. Those are complicated and worthy topics about which this mediocre movie unfortunately cares not one whit.
- Nothing is as it seems for James Clayton (Colin Farrell) as he woos fellow spy-in-training Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan) in The Recruit.