In The Recruit, Al Pacino is in one of his scruffy modes. As CIA recruiter and trainer Walter Burke, he fires a squint of fatherly concern across the bow of co-star Colin Farrell’s face. Farrell counters with his best James Dean look. A day’s growth of whiskers shadows his jaw as he plays reluctant spy-in-training James Clayton, and somehow he more or less maintains it that way while Burke recruits, trains and handles him.

The Recruit tips its hand during a poker game when Clayton refers to a fellow CIA trainee, an ex-Miami cop, as “Sonny” — as in “Miami Vice”’s Sonny Crockett. Crockett’s constant and stylized stubble became an icon of bad-boy sexiness. Dean scored both critical and popular points by becoming something of a ’50s oxymoron — serious beefcake. But don’t believe the implied hype. Farrell’s titular hero does none of the above here. Like the film itself, he fails to live up to his image.

But The Recruit does live up to some of its ad copy: “Nothing is what it seems.” The line is Burke’s key lesson — and one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s key themes. The Master of Suspense essentially created the cinematic spy thriller with The 39 Steps in 1935. There, he dropped his hero into a plot maze mined with duplicitous villains, thrilling action set pieces and romantic comedy. If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the basic blueprint of the spy thriller. Yet The Recruit isn’t what it seems: It isn’t really about espionage and it takes its time opening its eyes on any thrills.

Burke and his creators — screenwriters Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer, and director Roger Donaldson — should have studied the master. Because they seem to remember their thriller lessons too little and too late. Clayton wanders through this tale, expertly manipulated by Burke, but neither hero nor plot get up and running until they’ve almost lost the opportunity to get down to any truly interesting business. Clayton dawdles getting out of bed. He’s obsessed with finding his lost father even in his sleep. And even with Burke’s perversely paternal push, Clayton dawdles getting his spy-girl classmate, Layla (Bridget Moynahan), into bed. Burke’s an agent of duplicity seducing the would-be lovebirds into his worn-out web of “Trust. Betrayal. Deception.”

Thrills? Romance? The Recruit washes out of both. CIA training at “The Farm” can be like a live-action video game. Donaldson’s chases and shoot-outs may make you sit up, but not on the edge of your seat. Clayton and Layla wrestle more with their suspicions of each other than with each other. Their extra-coital conflict is gunmetal cool. It takes the friction of skin on skin to generate any real heat between them. Then there’s the “climax.” Clayton becomes the economy model of this year’s Hitchcockian Wrong Man, and Pacino — well, let’s talk about Pacino since there’s not much to say about the film.

Pacino launched into stardom in the ’70s. His roles mostly became variations of a few characters that ended up building his big-screen persona. Though any artist will tell you that variation is part of the process, there’s a gray area between variation and recycling. The former is alive, and refines and improves upon earlier works. The latter is more of a Dr. Frankenstein kind of operation, stitching old stuff into something new.

Show biz is speculative, but it tries to go for the surest thing. So established actors like Pacino are continually offered roles like the ones that established them. Burke is a blend of Pacino’s signature line of underappreciated professionals, diabolically seductive father figures and tragic anti-heroes. He pulls seniority and rank in taking the climax, but his tragic soliloquy falls flat into bullet-riddled melodrama. And it’s fitting: The Recruit is really a half-baked melodrama about looking for fathers in all the wrong places played out in flimsy spy-thriller drag.

“Access Hollywood”’s Guy Smith hypes it as “The first must-see movie of 2003!” I could’ve waited for cable. Or even later.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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