For more than an hour, "The Recruit" is slickly entertaining escapism that deftly plays into common fantasies about what training to be a CIA op might be like. As it approaches the inevitable moment when it must show its hand, pic plays the card repped by its motto, "Nothing is what it seems," so often that one wants to call the filmmakers out for cheating.

For more than an hour, “The Recruit” is slickly entertaining escapism that deftly plays into common fantasies about what training to be a CIA op might be like. As it approaches the inevitable moment when it must show its hand, pic plays the card repped by its motto, “Nothing is what it seems,” so often that one wants to call the filmmakers out for cheating. While it’s assured that no state secrets are revealed here that will endanger the agency’s sense of security, the picture could spur increased applications for espionage work if young viewers imagine they’ll meet people there as sexy as Colin Farrell and Bridget Moynahan. In a midwinter season thus far bereft of anything new that’s even half decent, Disney should be able to generate moderately good returns from this Al Pacino starrer.

Having pumped some sensual intrigue into official Washington, D.C., in “No Way Out” some years back, director Roger Donaldson profitably does so again here; this is a film in which young CIA recruits are so buff and hot that they look as though they might have been mistakenly culled from candidates for “The Bachelor/ette” and “Survivor.”

But once you’ve accepted the notion that the script by Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer reps purest college boys’ fiction about what the CIA selection process might be like, it’s easy to slip into voyeuristic mode and enjoy imagining that you’re getting the real inside scoop on what it takes to become a full-fledged spook.

It doesn’t hurt that the recruiter is as charismatic and authoritative as is Pacino’s Walter Burke. Exactly what you’d like to think the spy agency values and exemplifies, Burke is shrewd, brilliant, demanding, intimidating, insinuating and a self-described “scary judge of talent.” As a seasoned veteran of 25 years with the agency, he admits to knowing “all the secrets.”

Burke sets his sights on James Clayton (Farrell), a computer wiz who graduated top of his class at MIT and currently tends bar in a beautiful people club, presumably so as to provide a glam setting for his first encounter with Burke. The latter’s bait is that he knew James’ father, who died in a plane crash in Peru when James was a boy and who may or may not have been a spy himself — the agency doesn’t officially confirm such things.

Soon enough, James is hooked and joins a group of other bright young things at The Farm (the film’s original and better title), a beautiful old spread in what looks like Virginia horse country where Pacino will find out who’s “good enough.” Warned never to take anything at face value, the recruits are put through an assortment of mental, psychological and physical tests, which the film’s peek-behind-the-curtain manner endows with automatic interest.

Giving the film its greatest appeal and tension is James’ necessarily discreet but nevertheless intense flirting with beauteous fellow recruit Layla (Moynahan). One of the film’s most effective sequences has Pacino taking James and four other male candidates to a raucous bar and ordering them to pick up five girls. Layla’s presence there throws James, with unexpected results, leading to an equally absorbing scene in which James, in front of others, takes gross advantage of a truth-telling drill to quiz Layla about her sexual feelings for him.

Up to the point where James’ relationship to the program takes a turn (nothing is what is seems), “The Recruit” brims with pulpy pizzazz and hormones. Farrell is a live wire as a guarded young man whose reluctance to embrace an unanticipated future with the CIA is overcome by psychological and emotional factors. Moynahan has a challenging and intelligent bearing that’s terrifically sexy, and Pacino effortlessly takes command whenever he’s onscreen, whether regaling the recruits about how “We believe in right and wrong, and we chose right” or tossing out tantalizing tidbits about his top-secret life.

Once the action leaves The Farm, Pacino is absent for quite a while, to the film’s detriment; chases and discoveries of betrayal become more frequent; and the plotting is overtaken by increasingly routine Spy vs. Spy stuff, as successive layers of purported reality are stripped away before arriving at a dramatically disappointing ultimate revelation.

The whole picture may be hokey, but the first part is agreeably so, the second part not. At the very least, one comes away with a new appreciation of the difficulty of inner-office romance at the CIA.

Tech package is slick, and Toronto-area locations have been supplemented with enough actual D.C. material to pass muster.

The Recruit

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Birnbaum/Barber production of a Touchstone Pictures/Spyglass Entertainment presentation. Produced by Roger Birnbaum, Jeff Apple, Gary Barber. Executive producers, Jonathan Glickman, Ric Kidney. Co-producer, Megan Wolpert. Directed by Roger Donaldson. Screenplay, Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer, Mitch Glazer.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Stuart Dryburgh; editor, David Rosenbloom; music, Klaus Badelt; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; art directors, Dennis Davenport, Eric Hunsaker (Washington, D.C.); set designer, Gordon White; set decorator, Peter P. Nicolakakos; costume designer, Beatrix Aruna Pasztor; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), Douglas Ganton, James Sabat (Washington, D.C.); supervising sound editor, Tom Belifort; assistant director, Jeffrey Steven Authors; stunt coordinators, Steve Lucescu, Mike Russo. Reviewed at Walt Disney Studios, Burbank, Jan. 9, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Walter Burke - Al Pacino James Clayton - Colin Farrell Layla - Bridget Moynahan Zack - Gabriel Macht Dennis Slayne - Karl Pruner Husky Man - Eugene Lipinski
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