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The Forgaughtens: The Recruit (2003)

The Recruit - Al Pacino

Sometime in late 2001 or early 2002, someone in Hollywood thought they cracked the code on Colin Farrell, Bridget Moynahan, and late Al Pacino. The result of that (presumably coke-fueled) idea is The Recruit – a truly bonkers movie that helped contribute to the months of January and February becoming the ripest period for disposable thrillers.

If you haven’t given The Recruit a second thought since you’ve seen it (assuming you saw it at all), you’d be forgiven. It made just over $52 million domestic with a $46 million budget back in February 2003. It’s directed by Roger Donaldson, who made a couple financially successful films in the late 1980s but sort of muddled through titles like this for the next 20 years. And in terms of its actual content, it’s both sub-Bourne and sub-Shymalan (sort of?) that’s primarily entertaining as an exercise in making the intelligence community seem hilariously unintelligent.

The film follows James Clayton (Farrell), a bartender and aspiring computer analyst who is approached one evening by a man named Walter Burke (Pacino). Without being prompted, Burke hints that the plane crash that killed Clayton’s father more than a decade earlier wasn’t all that it seemed and that he could potentially find out more if he accepts Burke’s invitation to train at the CIA.

Once there, two things are clear: Clayton has better instincts for CIA work than any of his fellow trainees AND he doesn’t like to play by the rules. He “kobayashi maru”-s his way through a series of training exercises and tests, but his one big weakness is fellow trainee Layla Moore (Moynahan). After seemingly getting captured by enemies of the agency, Clayton stays tough in isolation until he believes Layla has been harmed, at which point he cracks and gives them everything they want to know. But then the lights come on. Burke reveals it was all for show, and Clayton receives his discharge papers.

He drinks away his problems until – SURPRISE! It was all for show, and Burke says Clayton lasted longer under duress than any other trainee ever. His discharge was cover for his first assignment. Layla is a double agent, and he’s meant to continue his courtship of her to find out what she’s up to and who is she providing information to.

There are maybe a half dozen more twists both before and after this climax that I won’t get into. It’s somewhat fun getting the rug pulled out from underneath you so many times, but part of the reason why the film is so forgettable is that this type of storytelling tends to be extremely hollow. You’ll feel exhilarated for a minute or two before the movie moves on to something else, and unless it reveals itself to be truly meaningful in its conclusion – or if it’s a tremendous feat of acting or directing – there won’t be any reason to care about those momentary highs.

On the acting front, the film is pretty mediocre. I mentioned earlier that it feels like this film was made to capitalize on two of Hollywood’s next big things, but Farrell as a muscly-but-strung-out leading man never took off, and Moynahan never found the material that might have taken her to the next level. This certainly isn’t it.

Then there’s Pacino, who finally started accepting “wise but jaded mentor” parts around this time. I think he’s a great fit for this part, but he doesn’t pop the way you’d hope. I’d probably credit that more to the film’s screenplay, which seems very pleased with itself, than I would any shortcomings related to Pacino’s work.

That brings me to Donaldson, who couldn’t have directed a more generic film. I know there’s a tendency to make films set in Washington extra drab and gray to better show the soul-sucking nature of its bureaucracies, but The Recruit needed a flashier touch. There are also waaaaay to many Dutch angles – we get it, something’s amiss here. You can settle down and let that thing sit upright.

Thankfully, The Recruit isn’t quite as turgid (and nowhere near as offensive) as my previous film in this series, The Score. But I wanted it to do more – good or bad. There’s a delightfully silly sequence early in the film when Clayton is undergoing psychological evaluations, and he’s asked, “Would you consider yourself subjectively firm or objectively flexible?” He responds, “Metaphysically wrinkle-free.”

That’s great stuff! More of that nonsense, please. But The Recruit doesn’t go there. It wants to go fast and fake you out, and after a while, it’s repetitive and boring. Not the worst movie of its kind, but nowhere near its potential.

Verdict: Exactly the correct amount of forgotten.

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