Early in the slick spy-world thriller The Recruit, we hear the CIA characterized as a bunch of “old, fat white guys” who were asleep at the switch when their country needed them most.

Other than proving, yet again, that old, fat white guys are about the only group in the United States who can be categorically disparaged these days, this line, which is repeated later in the film, suggests an intriguing cinematic premise. By most accounts, the CIA did drastically fail the nation in the months and years leading up to Sept. 11, and reports like Seymour Hersh’s in The New Yorker painted the agency as so bereft of knowledgeable, in-the-field operatives, as to imperil the whole U.S. national security apparatus.

So is The Recruit an incisive exposé, a dramatic probe into the flaccid underbelly and flawed practices of America’s espionage establishment?

I hate to dash your hopes, but if you suspect so, you’re obviously not looking at the calendar. The first thing to note about The Recruit is that it’s a classic example of the kind of film that gets released in January.

About the only thing one need know about major-studio movies that appear at this time of the year–even ones featuring major stars like Al Pacino–is that they are the films that no one at the studio considers as having even the slightest chance of winning Oscars or similar prizes. Prize-worthy movies, as we know, never get released before Labor Day or (more likely), the year’s final gasping breaths.

Prize-worthy “prestige” films (those aimed above a 12-year-old’s mental level) are now almost the exclusive province of mini-majors like Miramax. But there is still, I think, a special kind of cinematic underachiever that gets relegated to the ice palace of post-New Year’s releases.

Which isn’t to say they’re all bad. They just tend to be very genre-bound films, almost stiflingly conventional in their ambitions–the kind of film that makes more sense on a video store’s shelf than on a movie marquee.

The Recruit is that kind of movie. You know, going in, that it’s not intending anything daring, topically provocative or even unusually dramatic. It’s simply out to do a credible job of entertaining within the tried and true espionage thriller genre. The most crucial remaining question, though, is perhaps not “does it?” so much as “how much real entertainment do Hollywood’s formulas now allow in such genres?”

One thing that struck me about The Recruit, both as I watched it and in thinking about it afterward, is that current movies of its type are usually at best, their most persuasive and enthralling, in the first act. That’s partly, no doubt, because we walk into the theater ready to be entertained, which means willingly surrendering to premises that don’t have to be that original; just clear, compelling and presented with a certain amount of energy and polish.

The Recruit has all that. After the lights go down and images of computer screens loom up–backed by a pulsing score–the film thrusts us into the life of 25-year-old James Clayton (Colin Farrell), an aspiring computer whiz, currently working as a bartender. One day Clayton finds his humdrum post-collegiate existence invaded by Walter Burke (Al Pacino), a sardonic stranger who he first thinks is a recruiter for Dell. But Burke is actually recruiting for an even more sinister outfit–the CIA.

Clayton takes the bait for a reason. His father disappeared mysteriously in South America more than a decade before, and Clayton suspects he may have been working for the agency. So signing up with the CIA offers both the potential of finding out more about his father and perhaps, of following in his footsteps. As dramatic convention would have it, it also invites him to view Burke as a surrogate dad–a spy dad, you might say.

The movie’s most memorable section comes once Clayton and his fellow recruits ship off for training. From Langley, Va., they’re loaded into buses and taken to a remote and scenic outdoor training facility–presumably in the Blue Ridge–known as “The Farm.”

The three men most responsible for The Recruit‘s look and feel are Australians who long ago graduated to Hollywood, and all are impressively credentialed: director Roger Donaldson made The Bounty, No Way Out and Thirteen Days, among other films; cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh shot Jane Campion’s The Piano and Portrait of a Lady; and ace production designer Andrew McAlpine has designed films ranging from Sid and Nancy to Spike Lee’s Clockers.

Together, these pros give the Farm a palpable atmosphere that’s at once otherworldly and believable, with sleek high-tech interiors (where recruits are subjected to eye-reading machines that can tell truthful statements from lies), enclosed within a deceptively sylvan setting. Incidentally, this vision of the Farm may be relatively authentic, since the film was made with agency cooperation. Amusingly, in the press information, the production’s CIA advisor is quoted as saying, “I can neither confirm nor deny that such a place exists, but I will say that if we were going to give our training facility an interesting name, the Farm could perhaps be an appropriate thing to call it.”

It’s not just what the place looks like, or its connection to real-life espionage, that grabs us. Movies are often at their most engrossing when they plunge us into the complex mechanics of difficult occupations, especially dangerous ones. That’s what The Recruit does. In going through the CIA equivalent of basic training with Clayton and his fellow freshmen, whose primary instructor is the demanding and charismatic Burke, we get a real sense of both the attractions and the terrors of agency work, which, as Burke notes, can’t offer standard rewards like fame and wealth.

Appropriately, the superior recruiting-and-training part of The Recruit ends with Clayton tested in a way that pushes him to his physical and mental limits, and that results in his being ejected from the program. If you know your Basic Screenwriting manual, you know this is the end of Act One. And if you know your recent Hollywood thrillers, you know that the film from here has nowhere to go but down–meaning not into shocking incompetence (the filmmakers are too skilled for that) but into sheer, by-the-numbers predictability.

Why do movies like this tend to start out a lot more satisfyingly than they end up? I submit that when a film sets off determined to stay strictly within the limits of genre, those limits feel increasingly obvious and constraining as the movie rolls on. Thus, in The Recruit, we may want the story to delve deeper into the actual workings of the CIA, or give us some real revelations of character. But we know what we’re gonna get: Various tricky switchbacks and betrayals; a problematic romance (Clayton’s love interest is a fellow recruit played by Bridget Moynihan); some gunplay; and, on average, three chases, including one that’s automotive and another that takes place in an abandoned warehouse.

No, none of this is terrible. But it is so numbingly familiar as to disappoint anyone’s initial high expectations of the movie. It’s perhaps symptomatic that I fell asleep briefly during the film’s first big chase. So much for visceral excitements.

Of course, there are other things to engage viewers who gradually tune out as the film’s story grows more lullingly formulaic. In fact, movie stars are paid huge salaries to provide just that kind of surplus interest.

Colin Farrell, who plays Clayton, has been touted as Hollywood’s Next Big Male Thing ever since he surfaced in Tigerland a few years back. An Irishman who does a very passable American accent, Farrell combines the good looks and solid machismo of the young Mel Gibson with a bit of the doe-eyed dreaminess of a ’50s teen idol. He has given strong performances in films including Minority Report, and his work in The Recruit is as capable as the limited script allows. For the big star-making part that will launch him into the stratosphere, however, we will perhaps have to await his turn in the title role of Oliver Stone’s upcoming $100 million mega-epic Alexander the Great.

As for Al Pacino, The Recruit reminds us that he’s a genius and one of the treasures of the American cinema. Yet we’ve seen him in this type of role–including cut-above films like last year’s Insomnia–too often of late. No amount of expert, scenery-shuddering bellowing on his part can distract from the dispiriting realization that current Hollywood has few uses for a great actor, except as an embellishment for hackneyed genre vehicles. EndBlock