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“Everything is a test,” Walter Burke (Al Pacino, Insomnia), a recruiter for the CIA, repeatedly tells his students in the film The Recruit. The biggest test of all, though, is the test of patience moviegoers must endure to get through this ho-hum story of spies and counter spies.

It’s All About the Stubble

Everything's a test for Colin Farrell
Everything’s a test for Colin Farrell

The Recruit starts off with a lot of promise, particularly when it throws out some edgy dialogue between Walter and his hot prospect for the CIA, James Clayton (Colin Farrell, Minority Report). James’s father was killed in the line of duty while working for the CIA. Harboring a grudge, James chews out Walter, accusing the CIA of falling asleep prior to the World Trade Center attack.

But that was one scene, early on, to bait the audience into believing they are going to see a no-holds-barred topical thriller. It’s unfortunate the film decides to take the safe route and quickly dissolves into a paint-by-numbers spy flick with too few surprises. Following by-the-books Hollywood iconography, James is a handsome, genius computer hacker paying the bills as a bartender in a no-name dive. Sporting a “geeky chic” attitude, when it comes time to try his hand at the firing line, Clayton hits the bull’s eye – and he credits Nintendo for his sharp-shooting skills.

James is a bad-boy techno-nerd with good fashion sense and a hooligan’s stubble that never, ever goes away. James is never seen clean shaven; at the very least, there’s a 24-hour stubble, at times it would appear to be as much as 84 hours worth of growth. It’s any continuity checker’s nightmare, and when there’s precious little else to appreciate in the film, the stubble draws unwarranted attention.

In keeping with Hollywood’s not-so-secret formula, James is instantly smitten by his fellow CIA recruit, Layla (Bridget Moynahan, Coyote Ugly). But James has a special destiny as the designated lone wolf of the class and he must learn to set aside his personal interests in the name of God and Country.

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak and soon enough James and Layla pursue PG-13 romantic entanglements even as they come to realize they can’t trust each other.

Danger, James Clayton

The movie’s biggest problem is that it fails to generate any sense of danger, that anything’s really at stake. The plot involves a computer virus called Ice 9 (a tip of the hat to Kurt Vonnegut) that can be plugged in like a toaster and, via electrical outlets, shut down entire electrical grids, kind of like one big circuit breaker. How the software actually travels through the electrical lines instead of through the phone or cable lines was glossed over when Walter explained the situation to James.

So, OK, the entire United States faces a black out and shut down of defense systems if this virus is put in the wrong hands. Nonetheless, the film never generates a sense of urgency or tangible threat.

Instead, The Recruit sabotages itself by hiding behind the premise that James and Layla and their fellow recruits are all being tested – at all times. The film basically cheats its way from start to finish by never establishing rules as to what is simply a training exercise and what is true peril.

As a result, the story yields a big “so what?”

Hot Java and a Reality Check

Even with its weak premise and set up, the film does have its moments of fun as the recruits get hazed and it picks up the pace during the last half hour, but it’s simply too little too late. Roger Donaldson, who ably directed the underrated The Bounty but also unleashed the phenomenally bad Species, simply doesn’t have enough to work with here.

Written by a team of screenwriters who collectively have films such as The Natural, 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair, and Scrooged on their rèsumès, it would appear they fall apart when they have to create something original and can’t lean on Malamud, McQueen, or Dickens.

This thriller with too few thrills does partially redeem itself with the performances of Pacino, and more significantly, Farrell. While it’s basically Pacino playing Pacino (he even winds up spouting off in almost a caricature of himself during a tirade at the film’s conclusion), he’s still go it. And Farrell shines as a star in the making, either in spite of or because of his omnipresent stubble.