The Recruit begins with computer genius James Clayton (Farrell) being, well, recruited -- big surprise -- by Mephistophelian-looking CIA veteran Walter Burke (Pacino). After a token show of resistance -- given the title, is there really any suspense about the issue? -- Clayton agrees to join up and fight the good patriotic fight, at which point it's off to the Farm, the legendary Company training facility in Langley, Virginia.
The course is grueling and competitive: Along with physical rigors and loads of technical stuff, the class of '03 is instructed in deviousness, lying and general suspicion of everybody and everything. (Compare this to the funkier, probably more realistic training Chuck Barris goes through in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.) The master teacher of all this is, naturally, Burke. (If Burke were no more than a recruiter, the filmmakers wouldn't have spent the money on Pacino.) Pretty early on, Burke starts muddying the line between reality and make-believe: There's no way for Clayton and his classmates to know the real world from just another test or educational exercise being constructed by puppetmaster Burke.
This is particularly unnerving when it begins to impinge on the burgeoning attraction between Clayton and leggy classmate Layla (Bridget Moynahan). At every sly glance and every tentative kiss, Clayton has to wonder: Is it real? Or is it a new kind of oral exam?
At almost the exact midpoint, Burke gives Clayton his big assignment -- root out a double agent from his training class. And it doesn't take a seasoned cinema spook to guess just who Burke's main suspect is. (Hint: Think "leggy.")
Decades ago, before John Le Carré and Len Deighton, spy thrillers were a lot more straightforward. But, in terms of paranoia and complexity, those two writers upped the stakes hugely, and we're unlikely to see simple good guy-bad guy stuff ever again.
In the case of The Recruit, the reversals and plot contortions are so convoluted that it's almost impossible to figure out whether everyone's behavior makes sense when you reevaluate the whole thing with hindsight. No Way Out had the same problem, but it's even more severe here. (On the plus side, this time Donaldson doesn't resort to the sort of big-reversal cheat that neutralized the earlier film's good points.)
For 90 percent of its length, The Recruit really does keep your wits challenged and your nerves on edge. But by the end the audience, along with Clayton, has been jerked around so many times that it's almost too exhausting. There is a point at which Burke's manipulative bad faith treatment of Clayton may equate to Donaldson's manipulative bad faith treatment of the audience.
Pacino is in Insomnia mode here, but with a bit of the hamminess that Christopher Nolan managed to keep out of that performance. He doesn't stray in the full-bore "hoo-hah" turf of his worst work, but he comes damn close.
In the final analysis, The Recruit may be a little too clever for its own good. As the closing credits roll, things seem to be resolved. But even then there's one little element that suggests that the filmmakers may still be dicking with us: We get what at least looks like a glimpse of a character whose presence would completely contradict the final plot resolution.
Cleverness? Sloppy continuity? Unfortunate casting? Or simple hallucination on the part of viewers -- I was not alone in this -- worn out by trying to keep up with all the twists and turns?
By then, it's almost impossible to care.