Not surprisingly, films were full of heroic G-men and Marines, while CIA higher-ups were almost always portrayed as cruel, devious, and incompetent uber-WASPs with thin lips and thinning hair.
In 1996, the Agency wised up and sent veteran covert operations officer Chase Brandon to schmooze Hollywood. In the real world, the past seven years don't appear to have been a good ones for the CIA, but at least Brandon has helped make the Agency sexy on screen.
Thus, "The Recruit," in which perpetual next-big-thing Colin Farrell purports to be MIT's valedictorian and a slightly awful Al Pacino, his hair dyed the same shiny black as his leather coat, plays his instructor at spook school.
The CIA only aids productions whose scripts it likes. Here, it gets repaid in full when Pacino explains to his trainees that while their failures will be publicized, nobody will know when they save the world. So, perhaps it only looks like the CIA was twiddling its thumbs in the years leading up to Sept. 11. Maybe the Agency secretly saved us from space aliens or something.
Here's an odd movie critic statistic: over the last 15 months, one out of every eight movies I've reviewed has featured the role of "spy mentor." Among these, Pacino's blustery performance lacks the sense of mastery that, say, Morgan Freeman brought to "Sum of All Fears."
As the braying puppet master who puts the recruits through mind-bending tests on the CIA's 9000-acre training ground in suburban Virginia, Pacino has exactly the kind of show-offy role where he gets enough rope to hang himself. Age and apathy have taken their toll on Pacino's wondrous intensity, and as a method actor, he has fewer old troupers' tricks to fall back on than does a British coeval such as Ian McKellen.
Fortunately, one key plot twist hangs, believably, on Pacino being unable to resist hamming it up for an audience. Sadly, that's the smartest moment in the script. It's hard to make an uninteresting boot camp movie, and this one isn't all that bad. Still, "The Recruit" is targeted about 10-15 IQ points lower than the Tom Clancy CIA movies.
Hollywood has been trying to make an American superstar out of Farrell and his brooding Black Irish adorability, signing the sex symbol to tens of millions of dollars worth of contracts, with little to show for it so far. Perhaps he'd fare better using his natural Irish accent.
Farrell's best known for playing the agent hunting Tom Cruise in "Minority Report." The 26-year-old was adequate, but too young for what was essentially the same role the frighteningly formidable Edward James Olmos invented chasing Harrison Ford in that other Philip K. Dick movie "Blade Runner." Farrell has five more films in the pipeline, including a starring turn in Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great project. I hope he grows up quick.
In "The Recruit," Farrell does not come across as an ace undercover prospect since he spends the entire movie with his emotions plastered across his face, all two of them: Concerned and Very Concerned. Nor does Farrell, a drama school dropout from a family of Gaelic football stars, seem plausible as MIT's top computer nerd.
My wife remarked, "When he's typing away on his laptop, he furrows his brow just like the cutest little monkey. He seems to be worrying, 'Am I hacking into the CIA network? Or am I writing Hamlet? How am I supposed to know? I'm just a monkey.'"
Bridget Moynahan, who must have a thing for CIA men because she was last seen consorting with Ben Affleck in "Sum of All Fears," plays Farrell's classmate and love interest. After they graduate to jobs at CIA headquarters, Pacino tells Farrell that Moynahan is really a double agent whose secrets he must uncover. But Moynahan, like most actresses of her generation, displays little femme fatale glamour. She comes across as an earnest career woman on the verge of anorexia.
Since there are only three characters, and "The Recruit's" slogan is "Nothing is what it seems," the huge surprise ending where we learn who really is the traitor won't cause too many heart attacks in the theatre.
The take-home message is that while the CIA does have problems with officers committing treason, it's mostly because we don't pay them enough. I bet Agent Brandon didn't hesitate to approve that angle.
Rated PG-13 for violence, sexuality, and language.