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Agent Provocateur 

Rising star insinuates himself with spy caper


Roger Donaldson

Al Pacino, Colin Farrell, Bridget Moynahan

Is it possible that the heads of all the major studios in Hollywood routinely meet in secret, like a shadowy cabal straight out of The Star Chamber, and decide who they will collectively promote as The Next Big Thing? It's a legitimate question, given the avalanche of publicity routinely heaped upon young performers who haven't yet proven themselves to be major players on the cinema scene.Years ago, it was Brendan Fraser who received the p.r. blitz as he headlined such enduring works as, uh, Airheads and With Honors (it wasn't until years later that he finally broke through with the hits George of the Jungle and The Mummy). Then there was little Hallie Kate Eisenberg, the curly-haired "Pepsi girl" who seems to have disappeared into a black hole after appearing in small roles in The Insider and Bicentennial Man. And, of course, there were all those youthful thespians back in the 80s, Brat Packers and beyond, who, aside from straight-to-video obscurities, have never been allowed to leave that decade (anybody remember Jason Gedrick? Chris Makepeace? Craig Sheffer?).

Clearly, the current Next Big Thing is Colin Farrell, the handsome Irish actor who has six pictures scheduled for release in 2003 alone. He's reportedly earning $8 million for one of them (S.W.A.T.), and yet most audiences don't even have a clue he exists. He was hardly the reason people flocked to see Minority Report (though he was solid as Tom Cruise's foil); Hart's War, co-starring Bruce Willis, was a flop; and Phone Booth was delayed from release due to the real-life sniper shootings (it may surface later this year). If anything, Farrell's making entertainment headlines more for his boorish real-life antics (he's apparently a chip off Russell Crowe's block) than for his film appearances.

Still, as far as Next Big Things go, he's not one I would bet against. Farrell is reasonably talented, impossibly handsome and clearly photogenic -- about as close to a winning hand as can be achieved by someone hoping to become a bona fide movie star. Therefore, one of the pleasures of The Recruit is watching this young upstart hold his own against Al Pacino, an actor who became a superstar so quickly (with The Godfather, only his third film) that he didn't have time to marinate as a Next Big Thing.

The recurring thrust of The Recruit is "Nothing Is What It Seems" -- the phrase is used in the picture's promotional material, and a central character utters it on more than one occasion. Obviously, then, we're in the land of double-crosses, triple-crosses, plot twists and instantaneous reversals of fortune -- and equally as obvious, the film has its work cut out for it, since most modern puzzlers are ultimately about as complicated to navigate as a fifth grader's multiplication quiz.

At first, The Recruit, directed by old pro Roger Donaldson (No Way Out), looks as if it might be one of the elite -- a thriller that keeps us guessing right to the end. It begins with veteran CIA player Walter Burke (Pacino) talking the intelligent if aimless young college grad James Clayton (Farrell) into joining the agency. Clayton, burdened with the usual sort of psychological baggage thrust upon movie heroes -- his long-deceased dad might have been a CIA agent himself, and he views Burke as a sort of surrogate father figure -- agrees to give it a shot; this decision places him at "The Farm," a secret training ground where he's put through the strenuous paces along with all the other agency applicants. There, he meets the lovely Layla (Bridget Moynahan), a fellow recruit, and soon, both agent wanna-bes begin to realize they might have feelings for each other.

The first half of the movie is intriguing stuff. As Burke plays mind games with both Clayton and Layla, presumably in an effort to see if they're compatible with the sort of clandestine activities and duplicitous dealings required of CIA operatives, the film smacks of David Mamet at his trickiest -- indeed, nothing is what it seems, as we're constantly reminded.

But this catchphrase ends up backfiring during Hour Two. Once Clayton and Layla leave The Farm and end up working within the corridors of CIA headquarters, whereupon they both suspect the other of being an enemy agent, the fun slowly dissipates. Without the propulsive thrust of either Spy Game or Enemy of the State, two far more engaging movies about government skullduggery, the movie gets bogged down in the same types of twists that carried it through the first half. Only now, having acclimated ourselves to the film's internal logic, it becomes clear exactly where this is all headed, right down to the identity of the villain controlling matters from behind the scenes. This is also the sort of movie that largely falls apart after you've left the confines of the auditorium and begin to dwell on plot specifics (most looming of all, how could one character possibly anticipate how another character would react in situation after situation?).

Moynahan, seen last summer as Ben Affleck's sweetie in the Jack Ryan thriller The Sum of All Fears, has a pleasing presence, while Pacino lets the Inner Ham out only during one protracted scene. But above all else, this movie will probably serve as Farrell's calling card to middle America. And if the nation instead elects to take a pass on The Recruit, it can always catch Farrell in a couple weeks, when he plays one of the villains in the superhero yarn Daredevil. He's cast as Bullseye, an apt character name for an actor whose ascension to stardom appears decidedly on target.

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