Usual Suspects 

The Recruit is solidly unsurprising.

"Nothing is what it seems," Al Pacino says early and often in The Recruit, Hollywood's latest paint-by-numbers spy thriller. We can take it for granted, since in such spy thrillers nothing is ever what it seems. At least in the best ones, like No Way Out. Because the very nature of espionage and patriotic voyeurism implies deceit and surprise, we expect this and are delighted when we have been lured into thinking that we can believe our eyes. However, when our attention is so frequently drawn to the idea that we, as young, would-be CIA agents and audience members, can "trust no one," we race ahead of the game and start figuring things out.

Colin Farrell is James Clayton, a rough-but-soft-around-the-edges computer whiz-kid whose fledgling software company has just developed a program that can invade interconnected computer systems. As he's courting a potential buyer, he notices that he's being watched by a mysterious, goateed stranger in the form of Walter Burke (Pacino) who makes an offer Clayton can't refuse: Join the CIA. The pay is terrible, the work hard, and the rewards anonymous. But what fun! Intrigued, Clayton plays along partly to occupy his aimless (but formidable) intelligence and partly to find out the truth behind Burke's assertion that Clayton's beloved late father was an agent himself, killed on a mission and not in a random plane crash as was the official story.

But CIA-ing is hard and not without emotional expense. Clayton forges an instant chemistry with another trainee, Layla (The Sum of All Fears' Bridget Moynahan); they are pitted against each other by Burke to test their mettle and compatibility. Once it's clear to all Burke, audience, each other that these two really do want to get it on, missions get assigned, and Clayton's is to uncover a mole that has intercepted a potentially catastrophic computer program. Is Layla the mole? Is Clayton sleeping with the enemy? Which of these two intense young spies is the Mata Hari? Trust no one. Nothing is what it seems. And, according to this film, the CIA is as secure as a Circle K so, anything can happen.

The Recruit, I believe with some sincerity, is basically a star-making vehicle for the Who's That Guy comer-of-the-moment, Colin Farrell. Having subtly upstaged the talents of Tom Cruise in Minority Report and Bruce Willis in Hart's War, Farrell proves that he's got the right stuff as a leading man, and The Recruit showcases all the right angles: cute and cuddly (as when he is missing his father), sexy (as when a security-camera-evading make-out waltz turns into a steamy throwdown), intense (anytime he tilts his head down and peers vulnerably with black laser eyes through decisive, angled eyebrows), tough (despite a few fights, his best jabs are at a punching bag). And he can hold his own against Pacino no easy feat. Pacino, incidentally, could make an industry of mentor films. Donnie Brasco and Scent of a Woman revealed an impressive ability to draw great work from the younger pups in those films Johnny Depp and Chris O'Donnell, respectively. He provides the same stewardship here, though suppressing his more bombastic scenery-chewing skills in favor of subtler underplay is a nice contrast to the intense and athletic demands of his ward, Farrell. It's nice to see Pacino so at ease in a role, and in fact his work seems effortless, as in last year's equally measured Insomnia. He is casual, tempered, always on the lookout but never losing his cool or showing his hand. This allows for a satisfying, even funny payoff at the end, where Burke's mission is completed with unexpected results.

The Recruit succeeds in that it is appealing, with engaging stars, fine, swift pacing, and tense, moody cinematography. It will please most who see it, as most audiences have no problem checking their brains at the door. Discriminating viewers, however, will find that surprise is mightily outweighed by the humdrum of routine, and it's a shame that the seasoned Pacino and vibrant Farrell have to generate all of the film's sparks, with no particular help from the script. Bo List

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar probably gets American distribution and attracts U.S. audiences more consistently than any other foreign-language filmmaker. His films are colorful, flamboyant, erotic, and often screwball, smart and sexy yet somehow lighter than what many domestic filmgoers envision when contemplating the term "foreign film." Almodovar's latest, Talk to Her, combines two of his favorite topics: his devotion to and affection for women (see All About My Mother) and his penchant for casting an understanding eye on obsessive, borderline transgressive love (see Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!).

The film opens inside a movie theater where two men, Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), sit next to one another and gaze at the screen showing two women walking in a stuporous state are they blind? are they sleepwalking? Two men scurry around pushing tables and chairs out of their way. Marco weeps at the show of devotion. Benigno, also moved, bears witness to Marco's tears approvingly. The two men, at this point, have never met and are seated next to one another only by chance.

Afterward Benigno massages his object of devotion and desire and tells her about the man he saw at the movie. She does not respond and for good reason: She's in a coma. Alicia (Leonor Watling) is a ballerina who was in a car accident four years ago and has been in a coma ever since. Benigno is a nurse at the private clinic where Alicia is kept and has been hired to tend to her exclusively.

Meanwhile, Marco, a travel writer, has fallen in love with Lydia (Rosario Flores), a famous matador whom he has been assigned to write about. Marco watches Lydia being gored in a bullfight, which puts her in a coma and in the same clinic as Alicia, in the adjacent room. Marco and Benigno become friends, Benigno instructing Marco in how to tend to Lydia, his most important piece of advice the film's titular command.

The bulk of the film follows Marco and Benigno as they watch over their sleeping beauties. This is straight-faced melodrama without a shred of camp. It's sort of a "women's picture" that happens to star men, its association of "feminine" characteristics weeping, nursing, caretaking with its male leads one of its most compelling and daring qualities. The film is also interesting formally in that it communicates narrative information, and commentary, through the use of other films, as with the scene that Marco and Benigno watch at the beginning of the film which predicts their own roles. This strategy is also deployed in the film's most triumphant moment, as Benigno relates to Alicia the details of a silent film he has seen, Shrinking Lover. Here Almodovar re-creates the (fictional) film, an ecstatically inventive and sexually explicit Freudian meditation on desire and the desire to please. Only later do we realize it communicates some concurrent and crucial off-screen action that Almodovar doesn't show.

Neither as freewheelingly entertaining as Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! or as richly accomplished as All About My Mother, Talk to Her is something of a curiosity a bit ponderous and self-indulgent, more than a little pretentious but worth it for that fanciful, bravura silent interlude.

Chris Herrington

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