In Roger Donaldson's The Recruit, Colin Farrell plays M.I.T. graduate James Clayton, whose astonishing computer prowess catches the attention of C.I.A. agent Walter Burke (Al Pacino). Burke enlists Clayton to join the organization, bringing the young man to a top-secret, governmental compound nicknamed The Farm, where Clayton will train as a C.I.A. operative. While at The Farm - a hall-of-mirrors environment where, we're told ad nauseum, "nothing is what it seems" - Clayton falls for fellow recruit Layla (Bridget Moynahan), who, Burke later reveals, is secretly a mole, attempting to sabotage the C.I.A. from within; Clayton's assignment is to catch her in the act. Will Clayton's love for Layla threaten his allegiance to the C.I.A.? Does Layla even have a secret agenda? Is Burke really who we think he is? Is anything what it seems?
I spent the entire drive home from the cineplex trying to figure out why The Recruit was so boring. It isn't ineptly made; Donaldson gives the film polish and professionalism, and the first half, up until the love-affair plotline kicks in, moves along at a nice clip. I thought, perhaps, it was just my usual spy-thriller ennui setting in - movies of this ilk, with their high-tech verbiage and impossible-to-understand plot machinations, generally turn my brain into custard - but I eventually realized there was a larger problem at work. The Recruit isn't a spy thriller so much as it is a prolonged con job, à la The Sting or The Usual Suspects, which should inevitably make the film more entertaining than its genre cohorts; the trouble is, it's hard to make a who's-screwing-whom movie interesting when there are only three characters involved, one of whom - Farrell's Clayton - is obviously the token babe-in-the-woods. (Maybe I shouldn't say "obviously"; director Roger Donaldson, after all, was the man who revealed Kevin Costner to be a Russian spy in 1987's No Way Out.) Aside from Clayton, Burke, and Layla, there's not one character of even minor import to be found onscreen, so we're denied the pleasure you get from something like David Mamet's House of Games or his The Spanish Prisoner, where even peripheral characters wound up being in on the con. What we're left with in The Recruit, then, is a series of "either/or" scenarios - either Burke's a good guy or he's not, either Layla's a mole or she's not, either they're working together or they're not - and once you've worked them all through in your head, which takes about three minutes, the movie begins to feel laborious and exhausting, and the obligatory "twist" ending doesn't twist nearly enough.
The film, minimally populated though it is, still might have worked if the three leads gave equally electrifying performances that overcame the staleness of their material; though it did have a more ingenious script, Sleuth managed to do the job with only two main characters. Of course, in that film we had Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine; here, it's Colin Farrell and Bridget Moynahan. Farrell is fine as ever, even though he's required to do little more than look alternately perplexed and frazzled. Moynahan's performance, however, is a bust. She might be giving Donaldson exactly what he wants - Layla is certainly unreadable - but she remains a good-looking blank throughout the picture; it's impossible to care about Layla's "true" motivations when it doesn't appear that the actress playing her has any. As for Pacino, he's certainly trying harder than the others - his oddball line readings elicit laughs from a mostly dour, humorless screenplay - but his character makes absolutely no sense; maybe we should be grateful for that, because it allows Pacino to steal directly from his Scent of a Woman, Glengarry Glen Ross, and The Devil's Advocate performances without it seeming the least bit incongruous. Pacino's potrayal is an enormous in-joke - an Al's Greatest Hits package - but by the end of The Recruit, it's the only thing in the movie that still perks your attention.
DARKNESS FALLS and FINAL DESTINATION 2
What horror fan wouldn't be jazzed by the prospect of Darkness Falls? I mean, it's a movie about a killer Tooth Fairy, for God's sake! (I've sat through countless horror flicks, but I haven't seen that before.) And the film's opening scene is certainly promising, as a pre-teen who has just lost his last baby tooth awaits certain death at the hands of the hissing monster he hears from beneath his bedsheets; director Jonathan Liebesman gives this sequence just enough humor and tension to make us avid for shivers yet to come. They never do. After its creepy prelude, Darkness Falls quickly degenerates into a ridiculous muddle with zero scares and some of the most amateurish acting you're likely to catch on the big screen. Though Emma Caulfield tries hard to match him, Worst Performer honors go to lead actor Chaney Kley, who is supposed to be mysterious and tormented, yet who is hindered by a total lack of charisma and a yappy little-boy voice that makes his every moment of faux bravado play like high comedy. There are no surefire rules to making a good horror movie, but here's a memo to filmmakers: If your audience spends the entire film hoping the hero will be killed, you've done something wrong.
But don't despair, horror aficionados: Final Destination 2 is also in release, and it's terrific. Somehow, I managed to miss the first installment when it hit theatres in early 2000, but its cult-hit reputation intrigued me, and catching it later on DVD, I found the film clever, legitimately frightening, and gratifyingly gruesome. (I'm of the firm conviction that if you're going to make a gross-out movie, make it gross.) Though the series' format is, by now, familiar - the Final Destination characters manage to cheat death, yet nonetheless find themselves dying in their "predestined" order - that's actually a plus here; it enables the filmmakers to come up with wickedly convoluted, and wickedly funny, ways of dispatching their cast members. The first killing is the best - it involves a stove, a microwave, a refrigerator magnet, some leftover spaghetti, and much more - but that scene is nearly topped by a murder involving a destist's drill, a fish tank, a flock of pigeons, and an enormous plate of glass; anyone who didn't giggle just reading those précis is not the movie's ideal audience member. For the rest of us, there's also another half-dozen inventive slayings, much macabre humor, an amazing traffic accident that suggests what Altman might have done if he wanted to butcher his Nashville cast, a touching lead in A.J. Cook, and the return of the Candyman himself, Tony Todd. In a tremendous surprise, Final Destination 2 turns out to be the most enjoyable horror film we've been given since ... well, Final Destination .