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`Mentor' who has few equals

As his latest film "The Recruit" comes to India, ANAND PARTHASARATHY sizes up Al Pacino, veteran actor.


AL PACINO is currently the guy Hollywood turns to, when it does `generation gap' movies and wants a `guru' — the crazier the better — to pair with a young `sishya'. And even as a poll of filmmakers and critics conducted by UK's Channel 4 TV judges Pacino the greatest movie star of all time, his newest film comes to Indian theatres starting this week. In "The Recruit", Pacino is Walter Burke, senior instructor with the CIA whose latest recruit is a student from MIT, named James Clayton. This whiz kid has rejected a promising career in computers and joined the Secret Service because that is what his father did — before he vanished. It is Burke's job to lick Clayton into shape before unleashing him for his first assignment — to find a `mole' or traitor within the organisation. That is when Clayton can take some time off from romancing co-trainee Layla (Bridget Moynahan).

The director is Roger Donaldson, past master at delivering murky thrillers ("No Way out", "Thirteen Days") and with "The Recruit" he is true to form. One might of course wonder what the CIA is doing employing a certifiable loony like Burke. But that is not something one asks when it is Pacino playing the part. The character Farrell plays may not have learned much from his screen mentor, but the actor himself probably got to watch a maestro's performance alongside him.

Which is ironic in a way because Al Pacino's cinematic fame rests squarely on his own remarkable screen transformation from `sishya' to `guru' status in the role of Michael Corleone, in the three "Godfather" films. Derived from the Mario Puzo bestseller about the rise of American Mafiosi, the first 1972 film, has Pacino play a diffident son to the towering Godfather, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). At the end of the film, he, a clean cut "All American" war hero, has reluctantly donned the mantle of his father and taken over the leadership.

In Part II, he is a cold-blooded and increasingly paranoid Don in his own right, suspecting his own brother of a conspiracy, which he crushes in a violent climax. "The Godfather Part III" goes beyond the Mario Puzo original as it portrays a tired and tragic figure. Pacino was to play the gangster-boss at least twice after that.

In 1983, he appeared in the title role as "Scarface" in a remake of the Howard Hawks 1932 classic of the same name, which was a thinly disguised fictionalisation of the life of Al Capone, the notorious Chicago hoodlum.

In the hands of Brian de Palma this ended up as a violent yarn. Exactly 10 years later, he returned to the genre in a lighter product from the same director, playing a Puerto Rican drug lord trying to go straight in "Carlito's Way". For "The Godfather" the relatively unknown Pacino received $ 35,000 — and almost did not make the film: only director Francis Ford Coppola's insistence saved him. By the time he did "The Godfather Part III" in 1990, he was commanding $ 5 millions and a decade later in "Insomnia" with Robin Williams, his fee was $11 millions — one of the few actors from the 1960s and 70s, who is still at the top of the profession today. A methodical actor, he has chosen the occasional funny role (with Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1991 comedy "Frankie and Johnny") and indeed he won his first acting Oscar for the relatively lighter "Scent of a Woman." But film-goers tend to relate with him when he plays the heavy handed prophet grappling with a skewed world.

And in this avatar Al Pacino has few equals.

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