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Movie Review

Nothing is what it seems. Everything is a test. Those words of warning are given to hotshot MIT grad James Clayton by CIA recruiter Walter Burke—and by extension to the audience. Still struggling with the mysterious disappearance of his father 13 years prior, 27-year-old James is convinced by Burke that his skills as a nonlinear cryptologist would be best used in covert service to his country. So James joins a select class of recruits for training exercises and psychological conditioning at "The Farm" in rural Virginia. There he falls for Layla, a fellow trainee who may not be what she seems. But then again, (repeat in chorus) nothing is what it seems. Plot twists and revelations keep coming. James tries to figure out what is true, who is sincere and which side he’s really working for when it seems that (chime in any time) everything is a test. One thing appears to be reasonably certain ... maybe: Someone is trying to smuggle top-secret computer data out of CIA headquarters at Langley, and if they’re not stopped, it could spell disaster for the free world.

positive elements: James has a conscience and inner decency that crops up now and then. Despite an unrequited attraction to Layla, he elects not to take advantage of her when she comes on to him after having too much to drink (he simply walks her outside and calls her a cab). Tortured by thugs, James refuses to spill information and endures significant abuse for the sake of his colleagues. His compassion for Layla (afraid that she might be in equal pain) is what breaks his heart and will. There are other moments of sympathy and self-control as well. While implied and left unresolved, ethical questions challenge viewers to consider what sins are permissible in the pursuit of national security (lying, cheating, stealing, using people ... or killing them). Are any? There’s a subtle nod to the power of point-and-shoot video games when James attributes his excellent marksmanship to time spent playing Nintendo. The film points out the need for trust, loyalty and faithfulness—by virtue of their absence.

spiritual content: Burke tells James a story about a priest informing the Pope that he no longer believes in God, to which the Pope responds, "Fake it."

sexual content: Layla and James kiss passionately in a parking garage, then the camera cuts to the couple undressing each other on her bed and carrying on half-dressed, followed by a shot of them sleeping beneath the sheets. They have sex again the next morning. Layla’s statement, "Usually when a man ditches me in the middle of the night he doesn’t call the next day," suggests promiscuity on her part. There’s a crass remark about a mobster’s private parts. An early assignment involves Burke giving young men a deadline for procuring sexual partners at a bar. Men use crude slang for intercourse.

violent content: People brandish handguns. There are exchanges of gunfire. One man is shot at point-blank range. Another goes down in a hail of bullets. Men abduct James and Layla. James is tossed about and punched in the face before receiving electrical shocks (implied). Recruits are told, "You will be able to kill with a variety of weapons, or none at all." Burke and his buddies recall agency "war stories" that involve killings. A man purposely puts his head through a window and must remove a splinter of glass from his forehead.

crude or profane language: Thirty profanities or uses of crass slang (one f-word, 11 s-words, 9 misuses of the Lord’s name).

drug and alcohol content: Alcohol appears throughout. Before being recruited, James tends bar. There’s lots of social drinking (beer, martinis, margaritas, wine) and several scenes of people clubbing. Despondent, James drowns his sorrows to the point of drunkenness. Burke smokes cigars.

other negative elements: Promoting personal isolationism, Burke tells James to trust no one but himself and that little voice inside his head. James watches a crass clip from Comedy Central’s The Man Show. It is implied that true love can exist between human beings (father/son, man/woman) intent on wholesale deception. Recruits play poker for money. Burke tries to convince James that it’s possible to separate one’s vocation from character, saying, "The truth is, at the end of the day it’s what we do. It’s a job. It’s not who we are. We decide who we are." He fails to acknowledge that what we do often shapes who we are.

conclusion: The Recruit is one of those action-packed movies that keeps us guessing and raises interesting ethical questions about the end justifying the means. It’s a nail-biter that hangs together pretty well, logically speaking, and doesn’t go so far as to betray our rooting interest in the main character. As James tries to figure things out, we don’t get clued in until the moment he does, so the audience firmly identifies with him. That’s good for the story, but not necessarily for young viewers who could take moral cues from him—specifically when it comes to alcohol use and sexual conduct.

I’m always reluctant to review a celebrity’s lifestyle in the context of the film he or she is currently promoting, but it’s worth noting that Colin Farrell is a star on the rise (the Irish actor will appear in six films this year) who’s easier to root for onscreen than off. A self-proclaimed playboy (referred to by USA Today as a "Tinseltown tomcat"), Farrell is quoted in the March issue of Playboy as saying, "I’ve always been a firm believer that casual sex is a [expletive] good thing. Sometimes ... all I’m looking for is the simple act of sexual intimacy. It’s like ordering a [expletive] pizza. ... I have never been with a prostitute that I haven’t been completely polite to and just treated like a [expletive] human being." The same article finds Farrell bragging about his love for beer, porn and the drug Ecstacy. Not exactly the kind of role model teens should be embracing.

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Al Pacino as Walter Burke; Colin Farrell as James Clayton; Bridget Moynahan as Layla; Gabriel Macht as Zack; Kenneth Mitchell as Alan


Roger Donaldson ( )


Touchstone Pictures



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Bob Smithouser

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