As far as hotshot software designer James Clayton (Colin Farrell) is concerned, the CIA is just a bunch of “fat, old guys who were asleep when we needed them most.” That’s what he tells Walter Burke (Al Pacino), a CIA recruiter who visits James at the bar he tends in the evenings. It’s because of this night job that James overslept for a demonstration of his latest software innovation for a client earlier that morning. But his fast-on-his-feet recovery impressed not only the client but also Burke, who now wants James to consider the CIA.
“Would I have to kill anybody?” James flippantly asks. “Would you like to?” Burke answers. Burke knows how to push all the right buttons. James can’t see how he could possibly be CIA material, but Burke is “a scary judge of talent” and sees his potential. Burke also suggests that a job with the CIA might help James discover the truth behind his father’s mysterious death years ago.
And so James finds himself at The Farm, the CIA’s top secret training ground for new recruits. He’s immediately fascinated by Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan), a brilliant, multilingual and astonishingly beautiful fellow student. Chemistry between the two is immediate; James is the more interested of the two but as long as they’re both trainees at The Farm it doesn’t matter anyway since that kind of thing is discouraged.
After James fails an important test, he’s let go from the program while his classmates graduate to their new assignments. But James doesn’t have much time to be devastated — Burke reveals that he was flushed out of the program for a reason. Layla Moore is a mole who infiltrated the CIA via The Farm and is now trying to steal a deadly new kind of computer virus. The CIA needs James to find out how she plans to do it and who she’s doing it for. It’s an offer that James should probably refuse, but can’t.
Burke sets him up with a desk job at CIA headquarters, where Layla has taken a job with the agency’s science department. He’ll have to infiltrate her life to get what he needs, but in the process could lose not only his heart but also his life.
Ah, but in the world of the CIA nothing is ever what it seems. James finds himself at war with everything he knows and feels, and must ultimately rely not on his training but on his own instincts to survive his first assignment.
The Recruit almost feels like two films. The first half of the movie, which covers James’ recruitment and training at The Farm, feels like something that Jerry Bruckheimer might have produced — superr slick, super stylish and sometimes bordering on silly. Burke rounds up James and the other male recruits and takes them to a bar, where he tells each of them to make it back out to the parking lot with a woman who intends to have sex with them. The other training exercises are cool enough and adequately interesting, but it all seems too hip and too sexy. (A good example is the line of questioning James gives Layla during a training sequence that involves a lie detector test.) The training portion of the film gives a fun insight into what CIA training might actually be like, but tends to be too stylish for its own good.
The second half of the film, however, is more Frankenheimer than Bruckheimer. The CIA hopes that James’ chemistry with Layla will be the perfect tool to get him into Layla’s life, and the resulting conflict shifts the film’s gears into a psychological thriller that unfolds within a cleverly played web of cloak and dagger.
From the moment James agrees to foil Layla’s mission, The Recruit is emotionally powerful and deliciously suspenseful. And though Pacino plays Burke to the actor’s usual degree of perfection, it’s Colin Farrell and Bridget Moynahan who really make this thing work.
Moynahan recently starred with Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears as Jack Ryan’s fiancée Cathy, a strong, compassionate doctor coming to terms with the realization that the man she loves is living a dangerous CIA life. This time Moynahan is the CIA agent, and even Jack Ryan would be a fool to take on Layla Moore with the fate of the United States at stake. She’s played pretty faces in Coyote Ugly and the TV series Sex and the City, but never has she had a role that has required so much of her as the role of Layla Moore in The Recruit. The range of emotion Moynahan shows here is stunning and powerful; it will be remembered as one of the sexiest and most confident performances by an actress this year.
Film after film, Colin Farrell is establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with. The last couple of years have seen this incredible young actor working with some of the best talent in the industry. He held his own against Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. He starred alongside Bruce Willis in the World War II prison camp drama Hart’s War and most recently kicked the asses of Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck as the deadly assassin Bullseye in Daredevil. There’s also been a lot of talk that he might be the next Batman. But one thing that’s for certain is this — Farrell has played a wide variety of roles against some very diverse and demanding actors and directors, and he’s only getting better.
There’s a ferocious appeal about Farrell that goes beyond the obvious appeal of his good looks. There’s something very honest and soulful about his portrayal of James Clayton, and that’s what draws the audience into his struggle. No matter how crazy the world around him is becoming, James fights to stay true to himself. And though that might get him killed, it’s the only thing keeping him alive. Farrell’s portrayal of that struggle is the heart of the film, and he’s believable every step of the way. It should also be noted that Farrell has to switch off his native accent to play an American. He’s done it before, but think of it this way — it takes enough concentration and precision to act with your own voice. But when you have to take on a voice that isn’t your own, it takes twice the concentration and twice the precision. And when you’re playing scenes against the likes of Al Pacino, there’s no room for error. Farrell makes it look all too easy.
The dynamic between Farrell and Pacino is a pleasure to watch. Even in his most restrained moments Pacino can seem a bit over the top, and there are moments in the script that call for him to be just that. Farrell, brilliantly and appropriately, underplays his own performance to keep a pitch-perfect pace with Pacino. Farrell’s chemistry with Pacino is every bit as mesmerizing as his chemistry with Moynahan is explosive.
Farrell’s best chemistry, perhaps, is with director Roger Donaldson. As James gets deeper into his mission, there are moments when his cover is almost blown. Donaldson cleverly sets up situations that James barely gets out of in time, and it’s up to Farrell to make these moments work. The tricks James uses are always rooted in situations that were set up earlier in the film, and that always makes for a more satisfying pay-off.
Donaldson has helmed his fair share of action films and thrillers: Species, Dante’s Peak, the Alec Baldwin/Kim Basinger version of The Getaway and White Sands. His directing credits most relevant to The Recruit are the recent Cuban Missle Crisis thriller Thirteen Days and the excellent spy thriller No Way Out, which starred Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman and Sean Young. The Recruit was written by Roger Towne (In the Company of Spies, The Natural), Kurt Wimmer (The Thomas Crown Affair) and Mitch Glazer (Great Expectations, Scrooged).
The Recruit is a fun, entertaining movie with standout performances by Farrell and Moynahan. Think of the first half as Top Gun in the CIA. But it’s the powerfully acted and brutally suspenseful second half that will leave you groping for the edge of your seat long after you’ve fallen off of it.