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The Recruit

"THE RECRUIT" takes place within the shadowy world of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where, one is repeatedly told, nothing is what it seems. This is true of the movie as well: it seems like a spy thriller, but it really isn't. Sure, there are car and foot chases, some gunplay, a lot of breathless exposition and the frenetic uploading and downloading of files that is a staple of the modern high-tech Hollywood suspense film.

But for all of its slick, manufactured suspense, and a `surprise twist' that will come as a surprise to exactly no one, this movie, directed with shrugging professionalism by Roger Donaldson, belongs to a very special genre: the Al Pacino crazy mentor picture.

In "The Recruit", Pacino, with jet-black hair and a diabolical goatee, shambles and blusters in his usual way, turning the screenplay's flavourless dialogue (written by Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer) into mad poetry, full of non-sequiturs, odd pauses and sudden barks and whispers. It is almost worth the price of a ticket (or at least of a video rental) to hear him utter the words ``Bethesda'', ``Abu Nidal'' and ``Kurt Vonnegut'', though not, sadly in the same sentence, which would have been truly wonderful.

Like Christopher Walken or Marlon Brando, Pacino frequently uses his gifts to make mediocre movies more interesting. Everything else in "The Recruit" may be tiresomely predictable, but he, at least, is not.

Pacino is playing — not that it really matters, since his crazy mentor roles are best seen as episodes in a single continuing performance — a man named Walter Burke, whose job is to recruit and train operatives for the CIA.

His protégé is an M.I.T. graduate student named James Clayton (Colin Farrell), who, in addition to designing some kind of super-powerful software application, runs a Web site devoted to his father, an oil executive who died mysteriously in Peru.

Burke, who has ``a scary eye for talent'', persuades James to come to the Farm, the agency's top-secret training facility, a kind of Hogwarts for spies.

There, the young man develops a crush on a fellow recruit named Layla (Bridget Moynahan) and endures a hall-of-mirrors initiation meant to test his mettle, throw him off balance and provide the audience with a few jolts and reversals in anticipation of the main event.

Poor Farrell spends his time in a caffeinated frenzy (though Layla is the habitual coffee drinker), trying to maintain his leading-man sang-froid while registering panic, stress and confusion. He is without question a handsome and hardworking actor, but his charisma and intensity have yet to generate a truly interesting performance.

Some of the blame can no doubt be assigned to the material — striving, clumsy, overdone pictures like "Tigerland'" and "Hart's War". But even as Tom Cruise's apparent nemesis in the excellent "Minority Report", he seemed to be exerting himself to no clear purpose. Here, for all his confident smirking, anguished grimacing and brow-furrowing torment, his character remains a cipher. Pacino, on the other hand, is an exuberant riddle, even though Burke's motives and emotions ultimately make no sense at all. It is both appalling and amusing to contemplate the CIA as employing such a wing nut, especially as a teacher of the young. But really, what Pacino provides is an acting lesson, one that Farrell would do well to heed. In an unimaginative, by-the-book movie like this one, the best thing an actor can do is dare to be strange. — New York Times

A. O. SCOTT

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