The Recruit



USA 2003 : Roger DONALDSON : 115 mins



“Applications for the CIA are up ten-fold” says veteran spook-trainer Walter Burke (Al Pacino) early on in The Recruit. Ten-fold since when? We aren’t told. We don’t need to be told, so squarely does every sombre frame of this tepid would-be thriller exist in the chilly shadows of the Twin Towers. With each passing month of 2003, The Bourne Identity – which, for all its faults, at least had the nerve to present the CIA as a nest of corrupt crooks and murderers – feels more and more like a product of a bygone era. For the foreseeable future, we’re likely to be stuck with the model adhered to by The Sum of All Fears, xXx and now The Recruit – films in which hunky young studs learn to stop worrying and love Uncle Sam.

This time our hero is stubbled computer-whizz James Clayton, played by Colin Farrell (himself the latest hopeful ‘recruit’ to a Hollywood star system that so ruthlessly weeds out all bar the hardiest contenders for leading-man status.) Clayton devotes his machine-code skills to (a) using the internet to search for his father, missing since a mysterious 1990 plane-crash and (b) creating ‘Spartacus’, a program so stunning he’s got the Dell corporation waving a gigantic pay-check in his face (if he’d taken the bait, presumably he’d have ended up like the equally implausible techno-geek Ryan Philippe in the equally absurd AntiTrust.)

The wily Burke (“a scary judge of talent”) has his eye on Clayton, however, and it isn’t long before he’s appealing to the lad’s patriotic instincts. “We believe in good and evil – and we choose good!” rants Burke with chilling topicality for a February 2003 release: “Our cause in just! Our enemies – everywhere! Some scary stuff out there.” Spartacus-fan Clayton is initially way too rad to take the bait. To him, the CIA are, in the film’s key line, “a bunch of fat old white guys who fell asleep when we needed ’em most.” Burke, however, has an ace up his sleeve – he only has to hint that Clayton Sr was a CIA ‘spook’ and James is filling out the application test (in a scene much less convincing, original and funny than the equivalent sequence from Men In Black) and heading off to the CIA’s training complex in rural Virginia.

Here on ‘The Farm’ he’s put through intense mental and physical training, which include gruellingly realistic ‘simulations’ designed to test his breaking point. Clayton also finds time for a little on-off romance with fellow trainee Layla (Bridget Moynahan) – until he apparently fails one of Burke’s tests and is kicked off the programme. But, as he’s constantly been told, “Nothing is what it seems.” If there’s a more dog-tired theme in movies than this, it must be the ‘son in search of a father in search of a son,’ especially in terms of recent American cinema (Road To Perdition, Catch Me If You Can, etc etc etc).

The Recruit quite shamelessly blends both together, then places them at the service of its unspoken 9/11 subtext – the script (by Roger Towne, Mitch Glazer and Kurt Wimmer) is thus a fascinating confluence of enormously topical ideas, no matter its shortcomings as a coherent drama. The events of 11th September, 2001 – what the script twice calls the ‘falling asleep’ of America’s theoretical ‘old men’ custodians – is paralleled, in psychological terms, with the abandonment of the child by its father. Only by ending his dad-search – the film ends with his substitute father Burke joining his actual father in death – can Clayton start to emerge from the shadow of his loss and take up his duties as a valuable addition to the CIA’s ranks. In reality, however, we’re talking about two other male relatives: the government (‘Uncle Sam’) uses the energy of Clayton’s ‘dad’ impulses towards its Big Brother ends – The Recruit is blas about the way its characters are under almost constant surveillance via video and audio bugs.

These deviced become crucial in the second half, as the clunky ‘thriller’ plot takes over from the relatively intriguing ‘Farm’ stuff (though at least Moynahan has more to do than in her last CIA-advert, The Sum of All Fears) Something goes wrong with the pacing, and what should be a briskly paranoid nailbiter bogs down into what feels like a three-hour slog. It’s absolutely no surprise to see three separate screenwriters listed (the opening credits separate them with the word “and” rather than “&” indicating they each worked alone) – though it would be interesting to find out which of Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer is the Kurt Vonnegut fan. Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle provides the high-tech McGuffin with its name Ice-9, Clayton is (unconvincingly) shown reading the author’s most famous book, and he later casually drops the phrase ‘Breakfast of Champions’ into his conversation.

It’s hard to imagine this famously counter-cultural author being flattered by being placed in this kind of context, however – The Recruit thinks nothing of showing us a sign reading ‘George Bush Center for Intelligence’ for example. Then again, the film does seem to have some very odd ideas on heredity, as Clayton Sr’s activities supposedly pre-dispose Clayton Jr towards CIA work: “You were born to do this. It’s in your blood” he’s assured – all of which places a very un-American trust in the family tree. George Lucas’s Star Wars mythology suffers from an identical anomaly – though at least there the shenanigans about the blood are literally true, courtesy of the magical ‘midichlorian’ crystals which comprise part of the Jedi gene inheritance.

The Recruit, however, does not take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This is the USA in the early days of what George W Bush’s associates hope will be a New American Century. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 Bush made a characteristically threatening call to the film-making industry to, in effect, ‘get behind the war effort’. We now seem to be seeing the fruits of that appeal and the McCarthy-era fears it seems to have stirred. Because ultimately the film’s title doesn’t only refer to Clayton, or even to those members of its audience seduced by its ad-slick message. The real ‘recruit’ right now is, sad to say, Hollywood itself.

18th March, 2003
(seen same day, Odeon Gate, Newcastle)

by Neil Young