Too clever by half: "The Recruit" fools everybody

That Colin Farrell will be a major star has never been questioned by the 12 people who saw Tigerland, but no one has been able to answer the When? question. The War Zone and American Outlaws also went unseen in the U.S., Ordinary Decent Criminal is going direct to video, and Farrell's secondary roles in Minority Report and Hart's War were overshadowed by the films' stars. But this year he'll be showing up in Daredevil, Phone Booth, Veronica Guerin and S.W.A.T., so almost everyone will see the hot young Irishman in something.

In the title role of The Recruit Farrell occasionally peers out from the shadow of Al Pacino, who is easing back into his "Hoo-ah!" mode. Farrell is the film's backbone, but who sees a backbone when it's covered with flesh and then clothing?

Walter Burke (Pacino) recruits James Clayton (Farrell), a bartender/software designer who was first in his class at MIT, for the CIA by dropping hints that Clayton's late father had been an operative. "I am a scary judge of talent," Burke boasts scarily.

At "The Farm," the CIA training facility, Burke repeatedly warns the CTs (career trainees), and by extension the audience, "What you see, what you hear– nothing is what it seems." But they fall for gag after gag– each a more complex and devious test than the one before– and so do we. (Oh, we may get some of them, but that's a con artist's way of setting you up to fall for the big one.)

We meet three of Clayton's fellow students, but the only one we get to know at all is Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan), with whom James feels a certain "chemistry" (all of which is on the page, not on the screen). The others are Ronnie (Mike Realba), a friendly sort, and Zack (Gabriel Macht), a possible rival for Layla's affection. We see just enough of them to know them if they turn up later.

About half the story takes place at The Farm and the rest in the real world, where Burke gives Clayton an assignment that involves betraying Layla. I could tell you more but you'd have to kill me for spoiling the movie for you.

The script is pretty clever overall, but there's a terribly wrongheaded sequence where James compromises his mission by openly chasing someone through a train station when he should be conducting covert surveillance to see who the person will lead him to. But this gaffe is never mentioned afterward.

Director Roger Donaldson has a way with a thriller (No Way Out) and understands a magician's trick of misdirection. If he lets The Recruit get a little cheesy around the edges, maybe that's all part of the game.

Pacino continues his recent streak that began with Insomnia. Farrell continues to build a strong body of work that will one day surprise new fans when they review his career and realize how long he escaped their notice. In a scene that may be seen decades hence as prophetic, he does his first audition for the role of 007. Moynahan, who was Ben Affleck's girlfriend in The Sum of All Fears, seems rather plain to be romanced by these hunks. She shouldn't be babed out in the training scenes, but she should at least look capable of being fixed up.

A final question: Does Langley really have a "George Bush Center for Intelligence" or is the sign in the movie as a joke? I guess it's true about genes skipping a generation.