Sometimes a film primed for success just doesn’t make it. 2003's 'The Recruit' seemed to have everything it needed to thrive -- a pair of up-and-coming young stars, a grizzled Oscar-winning veteran, and a director whose latest film, 'Thirteen Days,' had earned accolades around the world. Unfortunately, a poorly-devised January release, a slew of negative reviews, and mediocre box office returns left 'The Recruit' to live out the rest of its days in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. Even so, having never seen the film before sitting down to watch it on Blu-ray, I had to wonder -- could a film with such solid genre ties and an electrifying cast really be that bad?
When programmer and MIT graduate James Clayton (Colin Farrell) is recruited for service by CIA officer Walter Burke (Al Pacino), he’s introduced to "The Farm" -- a secret facility where inductees undergo intense training to become international spies. Rising to the top of his class, James works to earn the coveted job of non-official cover operative, a designation awarded to one graduating student from each class. His only weaknesses seem to be his brash temperament and a budding affection for a fellow trainee named Layla (Bridget Moynahan). Exploiting each shortcoming, Burke forces James to endure a series of psychological and physical tests, pushes the rookie to his limit, and eventually offers him an irresistible opportunity.
With a 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 'The Recruit' has elicited mostly ridicule and contempt from critics over the years. One reviewer called it a "straight-to-video nightmare" while another labeled it an "unfortunate waste of Pacino and Farrell’s acting talents." Personally, I don’t think 'The Recruit' deserves all the flak that's been hurled its way. I'll admit that the story occasionally gravitates toward genre clichés, but it doesn’t drown in its fairly frequent mind games and plot twists. In fact, I found the scenes that take place at the CIA training facility -- dare I say -- fun. To keep the story focused and entertaining, director Roger Donaldson (‘The Bank Job,’ ‘Thirteen Days’) takes plenty of time to explore the personalities and motivations of his characters before allowing any lame devices to worm their way into the story.
Likewise, the lead actors deliver a well-rounded trio of performances that remain interesting even when conventional action scenes and spy-vs-spy shenanigans begin to dominate the third act. Farrell tackles the role of a stereotypical rebel with atypical charm, even adding a dose of heart to temper his character’s arrogance. Moynahan brings a welcome vulnerability to the testosterone-fueled proceedings, effectively gaining trust and rousing suspicion as necessary in both James and the viewer. As for Pacino, the legendary actor earns his paycheck by tapping into his slow-burn, climactic hoo-ah! schtick at all the right moments. He doesn’t craft Burke into a revolutionary genre standout, but he does inject him with enough spark to sell the character at every turn.
The one legitimate charge I’ll level at 'The Recruit' is that it would’ve been a much stronger film had its story simply revolved around the CIA training program. When James is put through his paces at The Farm, the film seems to dart from scene to scene with genuine affection for its characters and its subject matter. Unfortunately, the film ultimately becomes a formulaic spy thriller whith an endgame that's both inevitable and predictable. Don’t get me wrong, the ending doesn’t undermine the magic of those earlier scenes, it just fails to separate itself from its genre brethren.
In the end, 'The Recruit' is host to three compelling leads, several intense double crosses, and an extraordinary set piece in its CIA training facility. It’s not perfect, but in my opinion it doesn’t warrant all the derision that's been hurled its way, and should make for a solid rental for people who enjoy a hearty dose of action and entertainment in their spy thrillers.
Although Disney typically favors the AVC MPEG-4 codec on their Blu-ray releases, they've gone with VC-1 for this 1080p transfer of 'The Recruit,' to mixed results.
First the good news. The film’s muted palette and bleak disposition doesn't hinder color stability or vibrancy, allowing early splashes of reds and blues to pop. Skintones look tremendously natural and are responsible for most of the transfer’s standout moments. Detail also takes a turn in the spotlight -- although heavier shadows tend to cloak background elements that are visible on the standard DVD, the majority of the picture is sharper and more refined. An early introduction to the CIA training facility reveals plenty of legible on-screen text, the texture of the trainees' desks, and the stubbled chins of the young hopefuls.
Unfortunately, the transfer’s problems come in two fundamental flavors -- clarity and contrast. Detail may be phenomenal in select scenes (especially compared to the DVD), but the transfer has too many spongy edges and bland textures to stand out in the high-def crowd. As result, the depth of the image fluctuates from scene to scene, creating a somewhat inconsistent presentation. It doesn’t help that black levels are often either too oppressive or slightly faded. The artifacting and crushing that haunted the DVD may be gone, but in their place are shadows that further rob the image of much-needed depth and dimension. Don’t get me wrong, these clarity and contrast issues didn’t ruin the presentation -- they simply prevented it from being everything it could have been. All in all, 'The Recruit' certainly looks good enough to please fans, it just doesn’t outclass its higher-rated BD brethren.
(Note while a few previous releases of 'The Recruit' have been framed at 1.85:1, this Blu-ray edition presents the film in its original 2.35:1 theatrical ratio.)
Disney presents 'The Recruit' with an agile PCM 5.1 surround track (4.6Mbps) that does a fine job handling the gunfire and low-end bursts the film throws its way. Dialogue is clear and neatly prioritized in the mix -- when Farrell is locked in a steel box during a training simulation, the echoes of his prison and the shouts of his captors remain crisp despite the muddled nature of the crate’s acoustics. The rear surrounds also ensure that the track makes a memorable impression. An early scene between Pacino and Farrell in a bar features convincing background ambiance, transparent pans between all the channels, and deft crowd-noise precision. A trio of similar scenes nearly create a true theatrical experience, evolving into the sort of reference mix a CIA thriller deserves. Topping things off, the track's dynamics mark a substantial improvement over the tinny standaard DVD audio. LFE support is robust throughout the mix and gun blasts sound particularly fierce.
I do have one complaint, but it has more to do with the limitations of the film’s sound design than its technical presentation. While quieter scenes like the aforementioned bar chat sound excellent, chaotic scenes like the railway chase don’t benefit from the same realism. The designers seem to focus all of their sonic efforts on one or two elements of the soundstage at a time, muffling the remaining soundscape for dramatic effect. While it certainly makes prioritization less problematic, it flattens the soundfield and makes immersion a bit difficult. Such simplification happens on a regular basis throughout he film and became a frequent (albeit minor) distraction for me.
(Note that in addition to the the English and Spanish audio tracks listed on the back cover of the case, this Blu-ray disc also includes a Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track.)
'The Recruit' arrives on Blu-ray with little supplemental fanfare -- it includes all of the special features from the previously-released standard DVD, but aside from a solid commentary track, the included extras aren't expansive enough to add much significant value to the disc.
Whether or not 'The Recruit' is a good film is up for debate. I personally enjoyed its energetic cast and compelling training sequences, but was distracted by its clichéd shortcomings and third act faults. Love it or hate it, this new Blu-ray edition from Disney certainly tops its standard DVD counterpart, with an above average video transfer, an excellent PCM uncompressed audio track, and a decent collection of supplements.