The Recruit (2003)


"Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I’m not exactly CIA material," bartender James Clayton (Colin Farrell) tells CIA recruiter Walter Burke (Al Pacino).

Burke’s reply: "Do you have any idea what CIA material is?"

2003, Touchstone/Spyglass. Directed by Roger Donaldson. Al Pacino, Colin Farrell, Bridget Moynahan, Gabriel Macht.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value


Age Appropriateness


MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Sporadic violence and gunplay; a nonmarital affair with a couple of bedroom scenes (no explicit nudity); some profane, obscene, and sex-related language; a negative anecdote involving a pope.

Of course we don’t really know a whole lot about the CIA, but The Recruit has fun guessing. Directed by Roger Donaldson, who’s helmed the superior thrillers No Way Out (1987) and Thirteen Days as well as action schlock like Species and Dante’s Peak, The Recruit takes us into the Farm, thought to be the name of the CIA’s top-secret training facility, as well as the agency’s Langley, VA headquarters.

The movie’s best scenes take place on the Farm, as James Clayton and other young would-be operatives become familiar with jargon like "NOC," "rabbit," and "eye," study skills ranging from martial arts and catburglary to lying and picking up girls, and learn to use esoteric technology like tiny, translucent, biodegradeable bugging-device patches that work on a molecular level. (I don’t know if technology like this actually exists, but two other technologies on which the plot turns are impossible.)

Throughout the course of their training the recruits learn to embody the slogans of paranoia, "Trust no one" and "Nothing is what it seems." To these Burke adds a third, equally vital principle: "Do not get caught." Oh, yes, and there’s also "Everything is a test." Perhaps there are too many slogans.

In any case, once the plot moves away from the Farm into the real world, The Recruit never quite overcomes the fact that "Trust no one" and "Nothing is what it seems" are the audience’s watchwords too. It’s never hard to guess what’s really going on, and despite all the twists there are few surprises. (If you’ve seen the shameless tell-all trailer, you’ve already seen most of the twists.) Still, the movie is slick enough to be entertaining to the end.

"Our failures are known," Burke warns James and his classmates; "our successes are not." Agents who save the world, he tells them, are secretly awarded a medal they aren’t allowed to keep; agents who die in the course of duty are commemorated only by an anonymous star on a memorial wall.

James joins the CIA training program in part because he believes one of those anonymous stars may be for his father, who died in a plane crash in Peru while ostensibly working for Shell Oil. His curiosity about and longing for his father draws him to Burke, who not only may have known his father and the circumstances in which he died but also, like Paul Newman to Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition and Daniel Day-Lewis to Leonardo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York, becomes a kind of father-figure to him.

Pacino and Farrell starred separately in two of last year’s best films, Insomnia and Minority Report. The Recruit isn’t in that league, and Pacino compensates by dialing up his performance, punctuating his drawling line readings for emphasis with gusto: "Do. Not. Get. Caught!" He’s not as subtle and nuanced as he was Insomnia, but then neither is the movie, and he’s always eminently watchable, never going entirely over the top until the very last scene.

Farrell, who played Tom Cruise’s adversary in Minority Report, here graduates to a starring role reminiscent of some of Cruise’s own early roles. (Donaldson also directed Cruise in Cocktail.) Farrell balances Pacino’s showy performance with taut, brooding intensity. With his square jaw artfully shadowed by stubble and sleek anime-hero wedge of hair, he’s a visual counterpoint to Pacino, whose unkempt hair and goatee make him look like the dissolute twin brother of his Satan in The Devil’s Advocate.

Bridget Moynahan (the future Mrs. Ryan in The Sum of All Fears) has a key role as Layla, an attractive classmate of James’s who catches his eye and whose motives are at times meant to be unclear. Moynahan acquits herself well enough as a serious-minded trainee with ambiguous motives, but as a love interest she’s ill-matched with Farrell, and Donaldson shoots the scene in which they fall (literally) into bed with all the romance of a car commercial.

The Recruit comes at a time when the CIA is interesting again and intelligence and foreign policy seem more important than ever. In a change of policy, the actual CIA was relatively cooperative with the production, providing photos and brochures as well as offering tidbits of information. The result, while not quite a recruitment commercial in the Top Gun vein, offers a more positive, and possibly more accurate, depiction of the agency than many other films.

It’s too bad that the pedestrian plot has little to do with the real business of the CIA. In a potentially provocative lecture echoing the moral rhetoric of the current administration, Burke offers a moralistic interpretation of the agency’s charter: "Each of us is here because we believe in good and and evil, and we choose good. We believe in right and wrong, and we choose right. Our cause is just; our enemies are all over…" Too bad The Recruit wasn’t about something as interesting as that.