Forget Scarface, Michael Corleone, Frank Serpico. Just as the swaggering menace of Robert De Niro morphed over 20 years into a De Niro parody of swaggering menace, Al Pacino is no longer America's favorite loose cannon with an electric shock of hair-trigger temper.
Pacino has become our postmodern Jiminy Cricket, a scruffy mentor figure in movies who gives world-weary advice in an exhausted drawl that steadily increases in volume until he's reached his barking point and we're left cowering.
Like De Niro, he is still given to occasionally breaking this mold and surprising us; I thought his lethargic amoral detective in Insomnia, and his prototypical workaholic in Heat are two of his finest and least appreciated roles. In his new CIA thriller The Recruit, he's smack in the middle.
Pacino plays Walter Burke, a legendary CIA spook who knows “all the secrets.” He reveals a casual bitterness with the job's anonymity and poor pay. He is a self-described “scary judge of talent.” Just reading that, you can hear Pacino's gravelly voice in your head. He says it in the trailer, says it a few times in the movie. He says it mostly to James Clayton, his recruit, played by Colin Farrell (Minority Report). It's safe to imagine Pacino is not talking about the story so much as he's talking about the movie star appeal of the Irish-born Farrell, a smoldery actor whose eyebrows are so determined he should patent them. Indeed, Pacino, a notorious scene chewer, steps back, and lets Farrell gnaw a bit.
And Farrell, for his part, takes exactly the right tack opposite Pacino. He hangs back, lets Pacino do his thing, then springs a mix of naive confusion and savvy intelligence. It's half a star-making role, a little something before he's nipping at the heels of Russell Crowe. You believe he's capable of both outwitting anyone and crumbling at a neighborhood bar.
Burke tells James, a fresh MIT graduate, he should try out for the CIA or he'll wind up living a dull, complacent life. Pacino punches his speech with a subtle snobbery, saying “Bethesda” (an upscale Maryland suburb) and “comfortable job” the way a debutante says “vulgar” and “retail.” James, whose father was CIA, and who has gone missing for a decade, takes the bait, and enters a kind of James Bond 101 training.
Walter Burke (Al Pacino), left, recruits James Clayton (Colin Farrell) to work for the CIA.
The Recruit doesn't have much of a story. Its best moments are down on The Farm, the nickname for the plantation-style CIA training grounds James and his fellow recruits must navigate. Directed by Roger Donaldson, who traversed the world of espionage better with Kevin Costner in No Way Out, the film is a frat boy's idea of what joining a CIA boot camp must be like. Maybe it's accurate - it's nice to think so - a fraternity hazing that, rather than abuse, demands smarts, endurance, and acknowledgement that no matter how scary head games get, everything is a game:
Is your classmate a plant? Is that kidnapping staged? When does a deadly test get too real? Can you trust anyone?
Burke hovers over every recruit, watching from a bank of monitors. He seems to be the most obsessed, best bankrolled reality TV nut ever. There's a good scene where James' mission is to slide into a bar and pick up a woman. He's derailed when another, comely recruit (Bridget Moynahan) hits on him, leading to an even better moment when they're forced to talk about their feelings strapped to a lie detector.
Buzz buzz, indeed.
The Recruit is quick and engaging, but a little too comfortable with itself. (Shouldn't the National Park Service designate some area in Washington, D.C., maybe a bench or something, for official clandestine business?) Donaldson hits the same beats we've grown familiar with, and that can be cozy. But disappointment comes from how the filmmaker doesn't use our knowledge of thriller cliches for some larger payoff but only reinforces them. The more you become aware that everything acts as a puzzle piece - that everything is a red herring - every line of dialogue, every quick shot of a creepy guy on the edge of a crowd, grows tedious. The film is airless.
There's no breathing room.
Each layer of deception is just replaced with another layer. There is fun in wondering how far an onion peels, but this one turns out to be pretty shallow. James is given elite status and sent into CIA headquarters to flush a mole and get in car chases and seduce women. It's as if James were training all that time not for the CIA but for Espionage Graduate School. The Recruit turns overcomplicated, the way these movies always do, until the head games move too fast and you no longer care who's hoodwinking who.
The whole thing becomes just another upscale-lifestyle thriller: the clothes look direct from Banana Republic, coffeehouses are the primary meeting places, everyone drives a Volkswagen and has a townhouse in Georgetown, the colors are muted, and raindrops bead up on windowpanes with the melancholy of a Norah Jones song. It's as if representatives of the movie business and the spy business got together, wrote a screenplay, and realized what they had in common: paranoia and business and mock turtlenecks.