Let's not pretend that The Recruit is anything other than exactly what you think it is. Which is to say it is the predictably unpredictable story of CIA recruit James Clayton, played by Collin Farrell; the wizened agent-cum-father figure who brings him into the agency; and the fellow agent he loves. I can't be asked to harp on the fact that this movie is objectively not that good because we all already know that. In any event, no one going to see The Recruit is under any illusions about its contributions to artistic cinema. It's just supposed to be entertaining, which, perhaps surprisingly, it is.
Upon being introduced to James we soon discover that he is a carefree, athletic, technically brilliant MIT student who is also getting laid. Not that life is perfect for our young hero. He remains obsessed with the death of his father, which occured 13 years ago in a well publicized incident somewhere in Peru. This haunting and tragic incident has not kept James from inventing a stupendous computer program, called Spartacus, which is capable of "enslaving" all other computer programs. This apparently means that when it is operating James can broadcast his face onto any computer screen that he wants to. This is both so bizarre and blatantly illegal that it must mean Spartacus is destined for a cameo in a future plot twist. Needless to say, the Dell recruiter at MIT is impressed. But so is Walter Burke, whom Al Pacino plays as such a caricature of "Al Pacino Acting" as to be almost campy. Walter, a self-proclaimed "scary judge of talent," is an agent who has been around the block a few times and sees serious promise in James. He lures him in with hints about James's father, who James believes was a CIA agent, though he never tells James much of anything substantive. You see, even though James wants answers, Burke's "only got secrets." Walter succeeds in securing James's interest and brings him, along with an entire class of young recruits, to the training ground for new operatives known as "The Farm." During their stay at the Farm, some of the agents will quit, others will be asked to leave, some will become field agents, and one very outstanding boy or girl will become the N.O.C, a spy who is officially unrecognized by the CIA, making it the riskiest and most important position available.
While at the Farm, Burke treats the recruits, and the audience, to some key and relevant pieces of advice: "Everything is a test," "Rule number one: don't get caught," and most importantly, "Nothing is what it seems." In their time at the Farm these agents apparently learn everything anyone would ever need to know about self-defense, weapons, extreme sports, and surveillance equipment to be, as our hero points out, none other than Mr. Bond himself. In addition, there are lots of fun teaching exercises, like the one where Burke brings the boys to a bar with the mission of getting a girl out to the parking lot. We all know that our James is way better with the ladies than any of these other guys, certainly better than Zack the Miami cop/Farsi speaker who seems to be James' stiffest competition. But at the bar James sees Layla, played by Bridget Moynahan, the cute recruit whom he's been eyeing since he fist saw her. She is super-drunk and in need of help. He chivalrously refuses to sleep with her. He puts off his mission to call her a cab only to discover that her mission was to make sure he didn't complete his mission. Understandably, James gets kind of mad about this. So the next time she's hooked up to the lie detector he makes sure to find out just how badly she really wanted to sleep with him. I could go on with examples of the evolution of James and Layla's relationship, but you get the idea.
At some point Burke reveals to James that he has been chosen as the N.O.C. and that Layla is a traitor. James's first mission is to successfully investigate and seduce Layla; he's good at both. But, of course, "Nothing is what it seems," so things get confusing for James pretty quickly. This phrase is the movie's byline and it is repeated somewhere around four times as it becomes our hero's operating philosophy. James is not the only one learning this lesson. An audience well-versed in thriller movie conventions doesn't need to be told once, let alone four times, that there's going to be a plot twist, or two or six, in such a movie. So "if nothing is what it seems," and going into the last 15 minutes of the film we still have the same "bad guy" we've had since the middle of the movie, things might be about to change. Who would you put your money on as the evil mastermind of the film: the girl who cried while our hero was held prisoner, or the man who took him prisoner in the first place, even if only for a teaching exercise? Or to put it another way: the cute girl or Al Pacino? There's really no excuse for getting hustled in this case.
A serious problem with this film is the issue of character motivation: why do these people do what they do? James may be obsessed with his father's death and profession, but is that really the reason he listens to everything Burke says? Burke seems to think so, explaining that James needed a father figure, but it seems a little pat. Worse still are the sorry excuses given for Burke's motives. Besides being insufficient, it becomes irrelevant that Burke is completely insane. This may just be Pacino doing his thing, but it doesn't make very much sense. There is also the issue of James's competitor Zack, played by Gabriel Macht. Zack is the kind of role that makes you think most of it was left on the cutting room floor. From a plot perspective he is important, but he appears so infrequently you almost forget who he is.
Despite all of this the movie still manages to be entertaining, so who cares that it's mostly predictable? What is good about this film is that it has a sense of humor and a couple of compelling characters. Farrell capably shoulders this film; he seems at ease as the center of attention. He makes James sympathetic as the talented spy who can't help but lead with his heart even when he should be leading with his head. He manages to be both a man's man and a complete sweetheart at the same time. His chemistry with Moynahan is pretty palpable; you don't doubt that there's something more than business going on between the two of them. And then there's Pacino, who even when he is completely over the top, as he is for all of this film, you still can't look away from. The bottom line is that you probably know what you're getting yourself into when you decide to go see The Recruit. If it's voluntary you'll enjoy yourself. If it's not, putting taste and judgment aside, you just might enjoy yourself too.