"A bunch of fat old white guys who fell asleep when we needed them the most." That's how Al Pacino describes the CIA in Roger Donaldson's spy-versus-spy thriller The Recruit. Pacino plays Walter Burke, an older white guy who's carrying a few extra pounds but who may not have slept since he went to work for the agency, God knows how many years ago. He's one of those neither-confirm-nor-deny guys who dole out their emotions on a need-to-know basis, and if Pacino doesn't exactly chew the scenery, he certainly nibbles on it every chance he gets.
Having long ago come in from the cold, Pacino's Burke is now a recruiter who puts tomorrow's spooks through a finishing school known as "the Farm," and for reasons that only John le CarrÃ would completely understand he's set his sights on James Clayton (Colin Farrell), an M.I.T. grad who, when the movie opens, is trying to land a job at Dell Computer. Needless to say, he goes to work for the CIA instead, and half the fun of watching this Chinese-box movie open and close its drawers is in trying to figure out who works for whom and in what capacity. "Nothing is what it seems," Burke keeps saying to James. Tell me about it.
You can ruin a spy thriller by imparting too much or too little information, but The Recruit manages to stay just a couple of steps ahead of us. And although it's very much a product of the Hollywood assembly line, it has just enough of a connection to what we imagine the CIA must be like these days to keep us interested. Then there's Layla (Bridget Moynahan), a fellow recruit who may or may not be a mole. Perhaps because she looks like a supermodel, James takes an immediate liking to Layla, who may or may not take an immediate liking to him.
It's a game of cat-and-mouse in which neither the cat nor the mouse seems to know who's who, and somehow Donaldson keeps the whole thing on track. This is the guy who fooled just about everybody with No Way Out, where Kevin Costner turned out to be the mole he was looking for. The Recruit isn't quite as enjoyable as No Way Out was, partly because Farrell doesn't heat up the screen like Costner did. There's also a little too much tapping on computer keyboards ' the sine qua non of contemporary thrillers. But there's a satisfying twist at the end, which I would gladly share with you, but then I'd have to kill you.