Sign up for 'Recruit' at your own risk

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Nothing is what it seems," says CIA spymaster Al Pacino, and that's a good way to start a movie.

"The Recruit" is chock-full of spies, spooks, moles, snoops, and trainees so sneaky their own classmates have trouble figuring out whose side they're on.

In theory, these are the makings of a solid espionage thriller.

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In practice, "The Recruit" cruises along nicely for an hour or so, propelled by a likable hero (Colin Farrell) and a story that keeps him - and us - constantly off balance as to what's real life, what's a cooked-up training exercise, and whether there's any sure way to tell the difference.

Then the picture stumbles badly, spinning into a series of standard-issue shootout and car-chase scenes that even Farrell's earnest charm and Pacino's cocky charisma can't salvage. The reverse story twists also get tiring once you realize that nothing will be what it seems until the final fade-out.

The picture was directed by Roger Donaldson, who showed talent for high-octane suspense in "No Way Out" and "Thirteen Days," both starring Kevin Costner and both cannily in tune with the entertainment fashions of their day.

"The Recruit" might seem a tad more believable and less melodramatic if Costner played Pacino's role.

But more important, it's questionable whether moviegoers will line up for a story with such skeptical attitudes toward government spying at a time of public concern about US preparedness against international threats.

Not that affairs of the real world will occur to most viewers as they watch "The Recruit," which puts more conviction into the iffy romance between Farrell and Bridget Moynahan than into the plot's hazy political subtext.

The first half packs some clever surprises, but eventually you'll wish you'd signed up with another movie.

Rated PG-13; contains violence and mild sex.

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