James Clayton (a doe-eyed Colin Farrell) is headhunted by the CIA and sent to a training facility. There he competes with other hungry young geniuses to become a field operative. Despite the spy school Top Gun shenanigans, he finds time to start a romance with a fellow hopeful, Layla (Bridget Moynahan). Once school’s out though, Clayton’s recruiter (Al Pacino) wants him to keep tabs on Layla. She might be a mole trying to steal a computer virus worth millions. Then again, it could all just be another test…
Watching The Recruit satisfy itself with its twists and betrayal – or more accurately, witnessing the arrogance with which it relies on its transparent twists and betrayals – I could not help but remember "Murder at My Friend Harry’s" by Owen Lift. For those of you not familiar with Mr Lift and his literary works, he was the bumbling wannabe mystery writer and matricidal failure played by Danny DeVito in Throw Momma From the Train (1988). His aforementioned suspense masterpiece suffered from one fatal flaw. It was a murder mystery with only two characters, one of whom had died by the second paragraph. Hardly Agatha Christie or Alfred Hitchcock, then.
The Recruit, from the director who gave us the tricksy No Way Out (1987) and the riveting 13 Days (2000), might be flashier, but it suffers from exactly the same problem. Despite journeyman Roger Donaldson’s proficiency at ratcheting up the anxiety of his protagonist and the audience, there is very little actual suspense in a conspiracy that involves a total of three people. Even worse, we are never led to mistrust the potential femme fatale as she has proven what a terrible liar she is on several occasions in the first act. When Moynahan has to act bad to convince the audience something fishy is going on in the pointless "pick up a horny mark" test, all it does is convince us that she is telling the truth later when her statements should, for the sake of inscrutability, be suspect.
This is a weakness that pretty much sums up The Recruit in its entirety. It does not have the confidence in its audience to let them be confused. When the simple knot that has been tied is untangled, the Dr Mabuse figure spells out the when, the why, the who and then goes on help the audience understand how the tables have been turned on him with a second, even more inappropriate monologue. The Recruit constantly reaffirms that good has triumphed over evil and that if things move to fast for anyone distracted by their nachos or a text message, someone will stop the action to give an even longer summary. This kid’s gloves approach is insulting to a genre founded on perplexity being saved by brisk storytelling. It is indicative of how toothless this film is that nothing is actually threatened by the less than elaborate machinations and that Pacino can barely muster a "Hoo-Ha" during the proceedings. All this a far cry away from The Parallax View (1974), where the individual caught in the web had little hope of surviving even if the truth was revealed.
The whole sorry mess ends with a black star on a piece of paper that we have been led to believe is a CIA testament to the secret death of Clayton’s undercover father. As the film fades to white the star disappears. The intention of this device in an espionage film should be to suggest that nothing is black and white. The result here, in this flat hokum, is that we’ve just seen an apt metaphorical whitewash that encapsulates the preceding two hours.