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Film / The Recruit

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A 2003 spy thriller starring Colin Farrell as James Clayton, an MIT computer whiz, and Al Pacino as Walter Burke, a CIA operative who recruits James and becomes his instructor at The Farm, the CIA's field agent training facility. James seemingly washes out of the program after finally cracking during a kidnapping and interrogation "exercise" (which he had, as intended, believed was real) when the interrogators play on his feelings for fellow trainee Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan). After James has left The Farm, however, Burke reveals to him that his washing out was a cover created to allow him to take a low level CIA job and help Burke ferret out a mole within the Agency who is trying to steal the top-secret computer virus program Ice-9... and the mole just might be Layla.


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This film provides examples of:

  • Ambiguous Ending: Whether Clayton's father was a CIA agent who died in the line of duty or not.
  • Batman Gambit: Clayton at one point leaves his phone battery in trusting that another character, who thinks he's a mole, will call for backup and they can track him.
  • Blatant Lies: After Clayton shoots Zack, Burke tells him that his gun was filled with blanks. It isn't. His whole scheme falls apart from there.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The CIA agents are trained to remove their phone batteries so they can't be tracked; at the climax, Clayton intentionally leaves his in so he can be tracked.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Clayton is subjected to this in order to break him. Burke reveals it was a Secret Test of Character. Except it was actually designed to make him into an Unwitting Pawn.
  • Consummate Liar: Burke is fully capable of lying to people's faces without any tells. He even fools the audience multiple times.
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  • Disappeared Dad: Clayton's motivation is that his father was absent from the majority of his life due to his work for oil companies. Or the CIA. It's left ambiguous.
  • Engineered Public Confession: In the film's climax, Clayton tricks Burke into mistakenly believing that his boasts about his master plan have been broadcast to CIA headquarters. This causes Burke to start ranting about how the Agency has mistreated him in front of the CIA SWAT team which was there to arrest Clayton... causing them to raise their guns a few inches and target him.
  • Evil Mentor: Burke is actually a traitor rather than a Trickster Mentor like Clayton thought.
  • Fallen Hero: Burke was a genuinely devoted CIA agent for years but his perceived disrespect eventually drove him to betray the organization.
  • The Handler: Subverted. James Clayton fails his CIA training and is dismissed, but then Burke reveals that it's all a cover for the agency to keep the dirty work that he'll be doing for them off the books, and that Burke has been assigned as his handler and only source of contact. In truth, Burke is a double agent who is using Clayton as an Unwitting Pawn.
  • Instant Death Bullet: Averted. When Clayton shoots Zach in the chest, he's lying on the ground in visible agony for several seconds before expiring.
  • Large Ham: Burke, after he reveals his true nature, becomes a lot more theatrical, especially in his final scenes. Of course, he is played by Al Pacino so it's hardly surprising.
  • Motive Rant: Burke actually introduces himself by saying his motivations about the lousy pay, the poor relationships, and the lack of respect for the reasons he turned against them. He just tells this to the recruits in the form of a self-depreciating and darkly humorous intro speech.
  • Not Staying for Breakfast: Subverted. Clayton left to meet Burke, but comes back with groceries under the pretense of cooking her breakfast to cover it up.
  • Pursuing Parental Perils: Clayton has long been obsessed with the mysterious plane crash in Peru that killed his father; when Burke tells him that his father was actually a CIA agent, it's the push that Clayton needs to join the CIA.
  • Rage Against the Mentor: Clayton comes to hate Burke over the course of the movie. With good reason since he's setting him up.
  • Red Herring Mole: Layla is set up by Burke to get Clayton to spy on him.
  • The Reveal: Burke is corrupt, and Clayton was unknowingly helping him to steal the Virus from the CIA
  • Secret Test of Character: Burke subjects Clayton to an absolutely brutal one involving Cold-Blooded Torture. Its not actually anything of the sort but a way to mentally break him.
  • Shout-Out: Ice-9, the virus, gets its name from the Kurt Vonnegut book Cat's Cradle. Burke even explains the reference in the film.
  • Soft Glass: Averted. Burke smashes his own head through a window to fake an injury from Clayton, and has to pull a good-sized hunk of glass out of his forehead afterwards.
  • Spy School: The Farm, where the majority of the film takes place.
  • Suicide by Cop: Burke at the end.
  • Training "Accident": Zack is killed in a gunfight with Clayton due to being manipulated the same way.
  • Training from Hell
    • Actually averted, if you pay attention, there aren't any drill sergeants screaming, but rather experts teaching the recruits their new tradecraft. Hell, when they are all woken up in the morning, the voice over the P.A. greets them with a "good morning" before politely telling them to head out. That being said, the things they are learning aren't exactly skills that you get right the first time and if you fail to learn quick, you are dropped. Instructors don't need to scream their heads off as they simply ask anyone who isn't up to the task to leave.
    • And played straight given that part of the training is a faked abduction where the recruit is physically and psychologically abused and held in solitary confinement until breaking. Then subverted as this was very likely designed to make Clayton subservient to Burke by making him feel like he failed.
  • Trickster Mentor: Burke presents himself as one of these and it is never clear whether he's teaching a lesson or manipulating Clayton. He's doing the latter.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Clayton is looking for a father figure and Burke exploits that.
  • Viewer-Friendly Interface: Much of the film has the perspective of the audience watching our antiheroes through surveillance equipment.
  • Villains Never Lie: Subverted big time as Burke lies throughout the movie and it's often contradictory stories. But which is the truth is never revealed.
  • Worthy Opponent: Burke's last words to James are "you got to give me this: I'm a scary judge of talent", indicating that he respects James for outsmarting him.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Burke uses CIA agency recruits to spy on the CIA because they're naturally inclined to trust him as he's their teacher. He also plays on their paranoia and need to please him in order to keep them divided.


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